Why Independent Bookstores Need Your Help—And How You Can Support Them This Weekend

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Leigh Haber
·6 min read
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Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images


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Wherever I travel, a bookstore is among my first stops. That's why as far as I'm concerned, Independent Bookstore Day, which falls on Saturday, April 24 this year, is like a national holiday. As the Books Editor for Oprah Daily and the longtime curator of O, The Oprah Magazine’s books coverage, I don’t have to purchase books; they come to me for free from publishers who want us to consider them for review, or get them to Oprah.

And yet I can’t recall ever leaving an independent bookstore without buying at least two or three books. Each time I visit what for me, are pleasure domes, I discover or rediscover authors I haven’t yet gotten to know quite well enough. If there’s a “Staff Picks” section, I’m all in.

Though I’m an introvert, I rarely fail to introduce myself to a bookstore owner or clerk to find out what they’re reading and recommending. On a recent visit to Key West, I stumbled upon a shop called Books and Books on the way to dinner. It looked so cozy and appealing from the window, but it was already closed. That night I googled it and found out Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret author Judy Blume is an owner of the store.

The next morning, I got to the store just as it opened—and there was Judy Blume! I recognized her curly red hair and inviting face right away from the many times I'd seen her author photo. I left with four books, including a signed copy of one of hers, a novel called In The Unlikely Event. She thought I might like it because it's set in New Jersey, where I live and where she grew up. And she wouldn't let me go out the door without encouraging me to purchase a novel she loves called Landslide, by Susan Conley. "You can just feel the wind, the sea, the danger—it's so suspenseful," she urged. How could I refuse?

Here's why it's so important that we go all in on Independent Bookstore Day. In the past year, 75 independent bookstores have closed permanently, primarily due to the pandemic. That's about one per week. Another 16% are at risk of going under, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA).

But the upside is that many stores were able to get creative and adapt, finding new ways to service their customers even when the bricks and mortar venues remained closed. Author Ann Patchett, who co-owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, put on a party dress every Tuesday—the day most books get released—and shot videos for the store's social media feeds featuring her and her staff opening and commenting on their latest shipment of books.

"We had to learn to be nimble," she told Oprah Daily. "We celebrated our most tech-savvy employees. We all became members of the shipping department. Like so many others, we found ways to reinvent again and again. Instagram! Gift boxes! I hand wrote over 200 Mother's Day cards!" In the end, she says, "our customers were the cavalry coming to rescue us." She adds that she hopes "all of that flexibility will follow us into the future."

It seems that agility is widespread. In the early days of the shutdown, Deep Vellum Books in Dallas launched a customer hotline to offer book recommendations, but it morphed into an outlet for lonely people in need of conversation. The owner of Tombolo Books took to personally delivering her customers’ purchases on her bicycle, leaving packages on their doorsteps with handwritten notes. Changing Hands in Phoenix offers care packages containing the titles patrons ordered along with chocolates and other goodies. Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, D.C. found a new way to hand sell to their customers. It started a “Leap of Faith” subscription service to support emerging BIPOC, Queer, Disabled, and otherwise marginalized writers.

Before the pandemic, not every independent bookstore offered online shopping services, but quarantine forced many who didn’t previously provide this capacity to quickly step up, and to offer delivery or curbside pick-up. And in-store author events, which are the lifeblood of many indies, moved to remote platforms such as Zoom, though most owners report that they’ve only generated a fraction of the revenue live appearances do.

Glennon Doyle, the bestselling author of Untamed, is this year’s designated Independent Bookstore Ambassador. She’s a bookworm, too, or, as she put it when I spoke with her recently for this article: “I’m a person who hid from life in binges, booze, and books. Since binges and booze almost killed me, I had to quit them. I was left with books. Books—and the kindred booksellers who put them in my hands—saved me.”

Doyle resisted naming a favorite bookstore of all of them out there, but she related this story that pretty much sums up the relationship many authors have with booksellers all over the country: “Not long ago, I received a note from Copper Dog Books, a woman-owned shop in Beverly, Massachusetts. Meg, the owner wrote: ‘When I say Glennon Doyle fed me this month, I mean it in a literal way. I number-crunched, and her sales alone covered my family’s groceries for two weeks with a little extra for our local-supporting pizza take-out night.’ I love this from Meg,” Doyle continued, because she tells the story of so many indies nationwide, for whom a few book sales means that families are fed, and other local businesses supported.”

I live in Maplewood, New Jersey, where my local bookstore is the mighty Words, owned by Jonah and Ellen Zimiles. Words offers a fabulous range and selection of books, but what also keeps me going back is their mission. The Zimiles have a son with autism, and so not only have they hired more than 100 young people with autism as part of their vocational training program, their store has become a kind of community gathering place for families of children with autism. Like so many independents everywhere they are passionate not only about curating their shelves, but also about serving as a local heartbeat, making every person who shops there feel as if they’ve found a cozy spot they can call their own.

While celebrating our fellow bibliophiles and all the vibrant, thriving stores we love to frequent, Independent Bookstore Day is also a great time to remember all the stores and booksellers who have struggled this year. BINC (The Book Industry Charitable Foundation) has been on the ground helping support those who need it every step of the way. So pick up a new book, and send a few dollars to BINC to help them in their essential work.

Oprah likes to say: "There is no best life without books." Agreed! And for me there is no best life without indies!

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