The shock was like a slap in the face when I read the Nation’s 2011 article “Occupy the Holidays,” featuring an “annual end-of-the-year donations list” of ten organizations that it says deserve charitable contributions. Number ten on the list: independent bookstores. At the time, I was working at an indie bookstore. I lost count of the number of times I had overheard remarks like, “I can find this book cheaper online” or “I already read that on my e-reader.” Overdue invoices were piling up on the counter. We had shortened the store hours and reduced our inventory. Bookstore as charity case didn’t seem too far from the truth.
But for many of us, a bookstore is more than just a good cause. As Jessica Teich writes in “Eulogy for an Independent Bookstore,” “There’s a spirit about a bookstore, a set of shared experiences, a sense of humor.” Village Voice, a beloved bookshop in Paris, France, closed its doors in 2012 in response to decreasing sales. The owner, Odile Hellier, blamed the closure on the growing trend from print to iPad. After Apple launched the iPad in 2010, she started noticing the change, she said in an article for the New Yorker. In an interview for Publishing Perspectives, Hellier said she began noticing more “showroomers”—customers who browsed the store, using their phones to look up titles off the shelves to then buy online later at a reduced price. In case you’re wondering, this is not good bookstore etiquette. In fact, it’s downright tacky, as it takes advantage of a store’s services and resources while spending money elsewhere.
Bookstore closures have become an epidemic as these brick-and-mortar vestiges of the printed word surrender to the digital age. But there are still those of us who aren’t ready to wave the white flag. For some people, it comes down to a question of the sentimental versus the practical. And for those of us who discovered our first chapter book at an indie bookstore, who bring our own kids back to our favorite shop to pick out a picture book, or who can’t walk out the door without returning and adding at least one more book to our bedside table stacks, the sentimental wins by a long shot. But the creaky floors, quiet corners, and delightful window displays aren’t the only things bookstores have to offer. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an online search engine that can match a bookseller’s recommendation skills.
At any of the stores listed below, you’ll meet knowledgeable staff who not only care deeply about books but also sincerely care that the next book on your reading list is exactly what you wanted to read but didn’t know it yet. Booksellers possess a nuanced wealth of information and dedication that Google can’t match. In my years selling books, I heard countless queries like, “I’m looking for a cookbook. I think it has a carrot on the cover. . . .” or “I’m pretty sure either the author’s first or last name has a t in it.” And 99 percent of the time, I found those books for our customers, even if it took all afternoon. It always broke my heart a little when one of those same customers would thank me for my time, take the ISBN number I’d found, and tell me she was going to buy it online. If bookstores are going to stick around, this kind of behavior will need to stop. To tip the scales, customers can practice a version of reverse showrooming: research books online and then call a store to place an order or set a copy aside, until you swing by to pick it up at your leisure. Plus, you don’t have to pay for shipping, and the booksellers will likely even gift wrap it for you!
It’s probably no surprise that we love indie bookstores here at Girl Friday. An in-house poll tallied our favorites. Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, ranked among the top (obviously). But here’s a shout-out to other lesser-known bookstores—a list to bring along as you do your holiday shopping this season.
In the comments below, let us know what your favorite bookstore is!
Queen Anne Book Company
“Small, homey, with well-informed staff and patrons who all share a love of the neighborhood and of books.” —Jenna
“The staff is very sweet and very knowledgeable. It’s big enough to have a good selection but small enough that it feels really cozy and you feel like you can browse the whole store in one go.” —Andrea
“This feels like the bookstore I grew up in. It’s also the perfect example of bookstore as community hub. Chuck and Dee, the owners, are two of the sweetest people you’ll meet, and they care deeply about community involvement.” —Devon
San Francisco, CA
Elliot Bay Book Company
“The people are nice and smart and some of them wear glasses. And they have lots of good books. And you can drink wine.” —Anna
“I like the staff picks and the general bookish feel of it.” —Kristin
Third Place Books
“I’m biased because I used to work here, but this is truly one of the most special bookstores, as it has such a lovingly handpicked selection of books by local authors and historical books about the area. And you can’t beat the view of those mountains.” —Devon
“It’s got that old dusty, disorganized feel.” —Paul
Children’s Book World
Los Angeles, CA
“This little hole-in-the-wall shop is one of those places you can hear the book pages turn as the two people in the store leaf through.” —Meghan
“I love Fantagraphics in Georgetown for graphic novels, comics, and other illustrated books. Recently they started getting in more kid-friendly comics, which has led to a Saturday tradition that we do at least monthly—family goes to Fantagraphics and kids pick a new Tintin or Donald the Duck comic, I look at graphic novels and illustrated books, and my husband shops at the accompanying record store.” —Kristin
“The most imaginative place ever! There is a mini-door in the purple front door that’s just the right size for toddlers, animals running around all over the place, glass panels in the floor housing iguanas, bean bag nests, and a two-way bathroom mirror that’s an illuminated fish tank when the lights are turned off and a mirror when the lights are on. The book selection for kids is unparalleled.” —Meg
“It’s well curated, with a friendly staff and a delightful community feel to it.” —Susan