Cautious optimism abounds about the resilience of independent bookselling as new stores appear in the U.S. and Canada

Little Ghost Bookshop & Café opened earlier this year in Toronto’s west end (Photo: Instagram)

Of all the details in yesterday’s good news story about the appearance of new U.S. independent bookstores over the past two years, one detail stood out. Writing in the New York Times, publishing correspondents Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris pointed out that Yu and Me Books, which opened in New York City’s Chinatown neighbourhood in 2021, occupies a space that once served as a retailer for funeral supplies.

It’s a morbidly humorous metaphor for all those people who are constantly suggesting that physical books are dead. In their article, Alter and Harris suggest that precisely the opposite is true: not only has the public’s appetite for books not waned after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has actually increased. If, that is, one measure of that enthusiasm can be measured by retailer confidence that would spark new stores to open during what must by any measure constitute one of the greatest social and economic upheavals of the past seventy-five years.

Yu and Me Books, which began by raising $20,000 USD on GoFundMe and became profitable in less than half a year, is among 300 new independent stores that have opened in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic, Alter and Harris write. A large portion of these stores are run by and cater to people of colour. And a large number of them are thriving at the cash register.

In a survey of booksellers earlier this year, the association found that some 80 percent of respondents said they saw higher sales in 2021 than in 2020, and nearly 70 percent said their sales last year were higher than 2019, [Allison Hill, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association] said.

At Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, revenue was up by 20 percent in 2021, and the store made more money last year than it did in 2019, according to the owner, Valerie Koehler. Mitchell Kaplan, the founder of Books & Books, an independent chain in South Florida, said sales were up more than 60 percent in 2021 compared to 2020.

In Canada, independent retailers reported strong sales during the holiday selling season in 2021, despite hurdles thrown up by the omicron variant of Covid and supply chain issues that caused delays in shipments or reprints of some titles.

Domestically, the retail sector has also seen some expansion into 2022. Last fall, Betty’s Bookshelf opened its doors in the small Ontario town of St. Mary’s. According to the store’s website, it is intended “to build and nurture strong connections with our customers and community, while celebrating books, authors, and the power of storytelling.”

In Toronto, Little Ghosts Bookstore and Café opened in April 2022. Located on Dundas St. West near Trinity Bellwoods park, the store specializes in horror and dark fantasy. It also hosted a pop-up on July 9 featuring titles from Happily Ever After Books, an independent devoted to genre romance (love and death, of course, being inextricably linked).

The appearance of new independent bookstores, while anecdotal, does seem to indicate a reason to be optimistic about the state of book retailing midway through what has so far turned out to be a punishing 2022. (A year that is bound to get only more distressing as we move into the American midterm election season.) It is perhaps as good a reason as any to take advantage of the nice weather and schedule a trip to your local indie for some summer shopping.

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