Independent bookstores like Laura Romani’s Los Amigos Books in Berwyn are growing, diversifying: American Booksellers Association
Laura Romani, a Chicago resident with a background in education and library science, was considering a career change.
“I was home a few years ago, reflecting on all the experience I’ve gained and how I wanted to contribute to the Latin American community while allowing myself to be myself and use my love for books and my passion for multilingualism,” says Romani.
The answer, she decided: Open a bookstore.
With the help of a grant and stimulus checks she and her husband received during the pandemic, Romani launched Los Amigos Books, initially online last year and now with a small store in Berwyn. It focuses on children’s stories in English and Spanish.
Stores like Romani’s have contributed to a year of growth and greater diversity for the American Booksellers Association, the trade group for independent booksellers. The association now has 2,010 members in 2,547 sites, more than 300 since spring 2021.
It’s the highest ABA total in years, even though the association tightened its rules in 2020 to only include stores that “primarily sell books” rather than any store that carries books.
Allison Hill, ABA chief executive, says part of the increase is due to bookstore owners delaying membership renewals to early 2021, given uncertainty about the impact of the pandemic. But well over 100 of the new members are stores that opened in the past year, Hill says, dozens owned by people from a wider range of racial and ethnic groups.
They include the Romani Store in Berwyn, Libelula Books & Co. in San Diego, Yu and Me Books in New York’s Chinatown, Modern Tribe Bookshop in Killeen, Texas, and Socialight Society in Lansing, Michigan.
The ABA has long been predominantly white. In June 2020 – after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis – Board Chairman Jamie Fiocco said the association had not done enough to “remove barriers to membership and to services for black, indigenous and people of color”.
Now, Hill highlights the group’s new stores and diversity initiatives and says, “The increase in BIPOC stores is a big change for us.”
Like Romani, many of the new bookstore owners came from different careers or still had them by their side.
Sonyah Spencer works as a consultant to help fund The Urban Reader in Charlotte, North Carolina, focusing on books by African-American writers she opened in part because of the Black Lives Matters movement and her concern facing an increase in book bans.
In Locust Grove, Georgia, Erica Atkins was a college teacher and trainer who, while recovering from surgery, had a vision to open a store. So began Birdsong Books.
“I have dedicated my life to sharing knowledge,” says Atkins. “Whenever I have a conversation with someone, I give book recommendations.”
In Ossining, New York, Amy Hall says her work in fashion inspired her to open Hudson Valley Books for Humanity. She had browsed her shelves and thought about how the durability of clothing might apply to what she was reading. She decided to create a store that would primarily carry second-hand books and reflect Ossining’s economic and ethnic diversity.
“I wanted to build a bookstore that would accommodate people from all of these different segments of our community,” says Hall.
Despite fears that the COVID-19 pandemic could devastate book sales, publishers have posted strong profits over the past two years.
Hill and others had feared hundreds of member stores would close in 2020. Ultimately, about 80 closed and only 41 closed in 2021.
The independent bookstore has long faced obstacles – from the rise of Barnes & Noble and other “supermarkets” in the 1990s that contributed to the bankruptcy of thousands of independents, to the rise of Amazon .com and recent issues such as supply chain delays and high inflation.
Spencer says higher costs, especially for rent and shipping, have made Urban Bookstore struggle to break even.
At Birdsong Books, Atkins says she has seen a sharp rise in Bible prices, with the cost of a King James edition rising by several dollars.
At Changing Hands Bookstores in Arizona, buyer Miranda Myers noticed several price increases, including for Emily St. John Mandel’s “Sea of Tranquility,” one of this spring’s top literary releases, and the upcoming Lore Olympus book by Rachel Smythe.
Myers “definitely notices that these price increases are happening more and more lately.”
Still, Changing Hands owner Gayle Shanks says sales “are up, up. We had the best first quarter we’ve ever had in the store’s history. And this second quarter is also on the rise. People seem to be reading more than ever.