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The Fall (and Rise) of Independent Bookstores

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Last month, I took a short trip to Portland, Oregon. My husband and I arrived late on Friday night and one of the first places we went to was Powell's Books. Leaving almost 3 hours later with several bags full of purchased books, it is easy to see why Powell's consistently ranks as one of the world's greatest book stores.

While so many cities have lost their independent bookstores - first to major book retail chains, and now to Amazon.com and e-readers - Powell's Books is thriving. It is a hub of community and culture, a great spot to people watch and will totally turn you on to books, even if you don't consider yourself much of a book lover. I wish every great city had a bookstore like this.

Powell's flagship store, dubbed the "City of Books," occupies an entire city block in downtown Portland's Burnside neighbourhood, and carries more than one million books. It is the largest used and new bookstore in the world. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine colour coded rooms, which house more than 3,500 sections that range from Alchemy to Vintage Cookbooks.

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At Powells, any one is welcome to walk around and browse the store until late at night.  According to its website, 3,000 people walk into Powells just to browse and drink coffee every day, while another 3,000 people actually buy something. When I was there, no salespeople were hassling me. I ended up in sections I wouldn't normally visit, buying books I would never have discovered in a chain bookstore or online. The best part of walking into these sections was eavesdropping and watching the people who visited them (like the Goth girls in the astrology section who were analysing their astrological compatibility with their boyfriends). 

Powell's Books also hosts events that bring the community together to celebrate artists and writers. Each month, its Basil Hallward Gallery hosts a new art exhibit, as well as dozens of author events featuring acclaimed authors and thinkers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Leibovitz, and President Jimmy Carter. 

It used to be that every great city had a bookstore like Powell's. Vancouver had Duthies (its last location closed in 2010). New York City had the Gotham Book Mart, where Allen Ginsberg was once a clerk. It closed in 2007. Even when I was in Palm Springs last fall, they had a great independent book store, Latino Books y Mas, that was closing due to complications with its lease.

I don't need to go into analysing why these bookstores are closing. It is difficult to compete with the lure of cheap books from Amazon and the ease of e-readers. But as usual, with every technological gain we make, we lose something more valuable - a connection to our community and our city that can only be offered by a local bookstore. On the closing of Vancouver's Duthies Books, the owner Duthie Legate, said in an interview with the Georgia Straight:

"It's the books you find when you're here, and you go, "˜Oh, that looks so great' and get it—the four or five books that you find not because you're looking for them, but because you walk through and you see them".You know, I talk to everybody that comes in. I know my customers. I might not remember their names all the time, but I know that they've got kids or they've just been to Italy or read this book—I know them. And that's going to get lost."

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With every independent bookstore that closes, a city loses a special piece of community and culture (the same can be said of the demise of independent movie theatres). But before you go crying into your used copy of Hemingway's Moveable Feast purchased at Paris' Shakespeare and Company, it turns out that 2012 was actually banner year for the independent bookstore. 

The Christian Science Monitor ran a cover story last month about the rise of independent bookstores in the U.S., as sales at independent bookstores rose 8 percent in 2012 over 2011, according to a survey by the American Booksellers Association. The article states that "bookstore owners credit the modest increases to everything from the shuttering of Borders to the rise of the "buy local" movement, and to a get-'er-done outlook among the indies that would shame Larry the Cable Guy. If they have to sell cheesecake or run a summer camp to survive, add it to the to-do list."

Independent booksellers are holding strong, running events and coming up with new ways to foster relationships with the people in their community. According to the Christian Science Monitor article, "at bookstores nationwide, the community event has replaced the cat as de rigueur. Independents have added cafes and costume plays, and sell everything from locally made cards, T-shirts, and toys to chocolates and calendars."

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"These days, community-building is the most important key to an indie bookstore's success," says Christine Onaroti, owner of the Brooklyn bookstore, WORD. "I believe that the days of just putting books on a shelf and hoping people will come in to buy them – [that] is not realistic…. There's not a lot of room for pretentious, snooty booksellers these days."

These noble efforts of local bookstore entrepreneurs just may help lure back online book buyers and attract a new generation of readers. As someone who buys books online and supports my local used bookstore (those Amazon books have to go somewhere once I am done with them), being in Powells Books made me realize what an awesome bookstore Vancouver could have if we supported the small independents. I definitely will be supporting my local bookstore more from now on, and hopefully so will more city dwellers. According to Vancouver's Duthie Legate:

"I think bookstores are going to become a niche thing, like vinyl records are a niche item now, and there will be only maybe one or two, depending on the size of the city, but the people that know where it is will go there and be really passionate about it. So I don't think it's going to go the way of the dodo, but it will be further and further on the fringe."

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