Independent bookstores thrive as community hubs

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On a cool, clear Wednesday evening, a group of women who meet monthly to read and review books for children and young adults gather in the beer garden of the Blue Bunny Book store in Dedham. They listen carefully to one of the members, a third-grade teacher from Brookline, recommend the types of picture books that appeal most to third- and fourth-grade students.

The following Sunday evening, a dozen writers meet in the same bookstore to talk about crafts and get advice from an already published author. Every Friday morning, the bookstore distributes free copies of Dedham’s time, both to support local journalism and to attract up to twenty people to discuss the week’s events. And every day during the warmer months, a community piano invites anyone passing by Dedham Square to stop and play a tune.

The COVID-19 lockdown that once threatened to close bookstores – along with other local retailers – has instead created a new thirst for what bookstores have become, a hub of community engagement that goes beyond book signings. authors and hours of children’s stories. These independents are experiencing an unexpected boom, both nationally and in New England.

“During COVID, we had two years where technology was a lifeline, but a lot of people were living in little bubbles,” says Peter Reynolds, the children’s book author who owns The Blue Bunny bookstore. “The good news is that people were crazy to have real conversations and a coffee shop is a wonderful place to gather.”

Even before COVID, independent bookstores were becoming increasingly community-focused as a critical element of competition, first with big-box stores and then with Amazon. During the lockdown, most were forced to turn to online sales to survive and in doing so expanded their reach.

For example, Porter Square Books, in Cambridge and now in the Boston Seaport, has “come back in a new way,” topping sales in 2019, says co-owner Ellen Jarrett.

In addition to author signings two or three times a week and storytimes for children, Porter Square Books has brought back its popular “Be the Change” program, which partners with a local nonprofit, to encourage residents to not just come and talk, but act locally on issues like homelessness, women’s rights and health care, Jarrett says.

Steve Iwanski, owner and founder of Charter Books in Newport, explains the resurgence of independents this way: After a few horrific years of enforced isolation, “people came out with a renewed appreciation for the community that had always been there.

Although Charter Books only opened in 2021, it was in the works before COVID hit and, due to the lockdown, online sales started. Iwanski says local bookstores like his have benefited from Amazon’s lockdown decision to deem books non-essential items, which meant delivery could take six to eight weeks. “People turned around and saw that their local bookstore had books for sale.”

His store took the opportunity to provide same-day local delivery of books.

During COVID, the community-driven impetus that got residents ordering takeout to support local restaurants ended up helping bookstores. “In Newport, everyone has come out of the pandemic with a preference for local businesses. We all turned around and saw all these things in our city that we want to support,” Iwanski says.

This support goes both ways. Charter Books’ first decision was to partner with local nonprofits such as the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center, a food kitchen and multi-service provider, and the Potter League for Animals, a center animal rescue in nearby Middletown. Book drives and author events who donated a portion of sales contributed to the missions of nonprofit organizations while helping to raise awareness of the name of the new bookstore. Once the shop opened at 8 Broadway, reading groups began meeting inside. A successful holiday book fair held last season for one of the local schools will likely be repeated this year.

Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Bookstore Association (NEIBA), says that while the past two and a half years have “tested every element of the independent bookstore business model”, the majority of member stores have not only survived, but “a good number of them have flourished, with a marked increase in business volume in 2020 and 2021.”

The national trade group for independent stores, the American Book Association, reported an increase of 1,689 member stores between July 2020 and June 2022, according to The New York Times.

Jan Brogan has been a journalist for over thirty years, working as a correspondent for the Boston Globe, an editor for the Worcester Telegram and the Providence Journal, where she won the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business Writing. She is the award-winning author of four mysteries, final copy, Confidential source, Fatal yesterdayand Tease. She grew up in Clifton, New Jersey, and moved to New England to study journalism at Boston University. She holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She continues to work as a novelist and journalist, and teaches writing at Boston University’s Summer Journalism Institute.

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