On Reading: Do We NEED Independent Bookstores?

Chatham, Mass is a town in Cape Cod that my family and I love to visit. This small seaside, mostly seasonal, town, has not one, but TWO independent booksellers: Where the Sidewalk Ends and Yellow Umbrella Books (which sells used books in addition to new). How can that be, with booksellers everywhere floundering? I’m not sure, but I know that my husband and I love visiting them. We love visiting them, but how much business do we send their way?

As we browsed, my husband picked up a hefty hardcover book and said, “How can people pay this?” noting the $28.95 list price.

I went on to tell him that it’s the source of big debates within the book blogger and author community. Independent bookstores are fabulous, and in my heart, I want to support them, but in reality the vast majority of my book-buying dollars go amazon or the Half-Price bookstore chain (fabulous in its own right, but I think that used books don’t garner royalties for the authors, though I’m not sure about the overstock new books that they also sell).

But it’s about more than dollars and sense. Bookstores — specifically independent bookstores — are lovely places. They can be specific, perhaps targeted towards children, or featuring works that might not end up being sold at warehouse discounted prices — with the extra knowledge and expertise that helps people find just the right book (We’ve Got Mail, anyone?).

This weekend I saw author Luis Urrea at an event at a new-to-me wonderful independent bookstore, Brazos Bookstore, here in Houston. I was fortunate to have an interview with him before his talk — which was wonderfully entertaining (If you are in Denver, or Nashville, or St. Louis or California, please check out his schedule to see where you might see him this week).

I wanted to ask him as an author who does book tours and appears in bookstores across the country about this relationship between authors and independent bookstores. Like me, he has quite an infatuation with the bookstore: “Don’t you want one?” he asked me, sharing the dream of so many booklovers. He went on to say that he believed his first book was hand sold by booksellers who loved it. He even shared a wonderful anecdote about a store that didn’t carry self-help books, and instead advised those who were looking for them to read Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, quipping “If you think you have problems, read this. . . .”

Author events — that’s something that you mostly see at independent bookstores, and occasionally a big-name author will appear at a big box brand chain bookstore, but Luis Urrea shared another telling detail about the big name chain in his hometown — they don’t even carry his newest novel, now available in paperback, Queen of America, whereas the “shop around the corner” carries his books, many of them signed editions.

As a book blogger, I read so many authors, and I’m often surprised to find that they aren’t carried in many bookstores either. They are fabulous books by mainstream publishers, and I think they still have to fight for shelf space. That’s one reason I’m glad to give books I love some space here, and yes, one good thing about amazon is that you can find just about anything. Urrea did mention his appreciation for the large selection of diverse magazines carried by the chain bookstore, but he said that poetry sections tend to be slim, but he is happy to discover unknown gems in the smaller bookstores he visits.

Is this an internal battle you fight — wanting to support artists and keep wonderful bookstores in business, yet facing the reality of the bottom line of cost? Give a shout-out in the comments to an independent bookstore that you love.

***I’m going to share more information from the wonderfully entertaining Luis Urrea in the weeks to come, and hopefully Dawn will be reviewing The Queen of America in the relatively near future.  Edited to add Dawn’s review of Queen of America, and Luis’ thoughts on the novels.


  1. says

    I think we really do NEED independent bookstores! Of course I live in Portland OR, home not only to several Powells but to many many small independent stores. Powells has a large online presence as well, and as a result, it’s getting harder to sell your books there (they are fussier than they used to be). But I can relate to the internal struggle, as I love amazon too.

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