Bookstores: The Heart of Main Street

  • By John Adam Wasowicz
  • January 5, 2018

How indies along the East Coast are transforming downtowns

Bookstores: The Heart of Main Street

Visit any American small town and chances are you’ll see the same things on Main Street. First, there will be some closed stores, with prominent rent signs displayed. There will be a bank or two; a coffeeshop; a residential real estate office; a couple of clothing boutiques; maybe a tobacco store; a tattoo parlor; and a bookstore.

"I can't imagine a main street without a bookstore," says M.J. Stone, who owns and operates Agora, a coffee and bakery shop in Fredericksburg, VA, that sells used books and sponsors signings by local writers.      

"When people walk in the door, they slow down and relax," observes R. Allen Robinson, who runs Books and Other Found Things with his wife, Nancy, in Leesburg, VA. "They look around and say, 'All my friends are here,’" he adds, one arm resting on a mantle displaying books by Ron Chernow and Kahlil Gibran. 

Many bookstores are a family affair, like the Winchester Book Gallery, 50 miles outside of Washington, DC, in the foothills of the Shenandoah Valley, where high-schooler Lauren Patrick tends the register on weekends at the store owned by her mom, Christine Patrick.

"The bookstore is a safe place, a center of diversity filled with books that offer as many different points of view as possible," says Lauren.

Less evident, perhaps, but just as important, the Winchester Book Gallery and others like it also influence the local economy. Someone looking for a novel just might end up walking down the street, perhaps stopping into another shop for an espresso or a new shirt.

Happily, local bookstores are undergoing a renaissance. This appears to arise from owners’ experimentation, innovation, and risk-taking. They are sponsoring community forums, becoming something like the colonial-era town hall. They are welcoming new authors into their stores for readings and signings. And they are collaborating with other nearby vendors to drive traffic back into the heart of the city.

Of course, none of this is new. But what is new is the prevalence and pace at which it is happening: Bookshop-hosted community forums are open almost every night, and authors are signing books at stores every weekend.

"Bookstores resonate broadly as community hubs," explains Catherine Hamilton-Genson, manager of Main Street Books in Davidson, NC. "The bookstore is that third place people go to in order to connect with others, explore identity, and grapple with things."

Like home and places of worship, the bookstore is a place where ideas are distributed, adding to the overall economic relevance of the community.

"It's where ideas, thoughts, and actions come together in a literary place," says Hamilton-Genson. "I see it happening."

Adds Robinson, "The bookstore is a place that invites conversation."

Independent bookstores are succeeding as paper enjoys a comeback. Six years ago, when the Robinsons opened their store in Leesburg, digital was on an upswing, and the prophets of doom predicted the demise of print books.

The opposite has occurred.

According to the Association of American Publishers, the number of independent booksellers in the U.S. has grown 30 percent — from 1,651 to 2,227 — between 2009 and 2015. Further, the consumer-book industry has enjoyed a revenue increase of about 5 percent from 2013 to 2016. E-book sales are down 17 percent from a year ago, while print-book revenue has risen 4.5 percent.

Depending on how statistics are measured, the news is either good or bad. Although there was an upward trend in paper-book sales over a recent three-year period, there was a drop in overall book sales in 2017 compared to the year prior. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that bookstore sales were down 2.8 percent during the first nine months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, from $8.38 billion to $8.15 billion.

Not that statistics can adequately capture readers’ need for physical books.

"People tell me they love their Kindle when they travel, but like to snuggle up with a good book when they're home," says Robinson. "Others tell me they look at screens all day long and prefer to avoid doing it when they're reading for personal enjoyment."

In some instances, indie bookstores are saving existing spaces from extinction, as in the case of the New England Mobile Book Fair, a venerable institution in the Boston area that was about to go under when Tom Lyons stepped in to rescue it.

"I bought it to save it," he explains, downsizing from 16,000 square feet of retail space to a new, smaller venue of 4,000 square feet. Like others, Lyons and his dedicated staff sponsor events throughout the year, including an annual New England Mystery Writers' get-together that matches mystery readers with their favorite local authors.

Other indie bookstores are expanding, including Washington, DC-based Politics and Prose. In addition to its flagship store on Connecticut Avenue, it boasts two smaller retail outlets, one at the Wharf along the Potomac River in Southwest DC, and another at Union Market (coming soon) in Northeast DC.    

Clearly, the combination of consumer trends and active efforts by booksellers are resulting in the re-establishment of the bookstore as the place to be. And that, in turn, leads to ever-more-vibrant, more-welcoming Main streets.

After all, concludes Robinson, "The bookstore adds a positive tone to downtown.”

John A. Wasowicz published Daingerfield Island, a legal thriller, in July 2017 with Baltimore-based BrickHouse Books. This article is based upon his observations while visiting bookstores throughout the Northeast and talking with bookstore owners and operators. Wasowicz has practiced law in the public and private sectors for 30 years; Daingerfield Island is his first novel.  

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