An Ode To Indies: Why Small Bookstores Need Your Support

November 11, 2011 at 2:29 pm , by

Julia Glass, author of our November book club pick, The Widower’s Tale, has spent a lot of time visiting and reading at the country’s many independent bookstores. It’s safe to say that she’s cultivated quite an admiration for them—and we agree! Here, she explains why you should love them, too (and lets us in on her favorite local bookstores across the US.)


The author (third from left) at Town House Books in St. Charles, IL.

Last Sunday I shared a podium with fellow novelists Leah Hager Cohen and Ha Jin at an 8:00 a.m. “author breakfast” hosted at the Colonial Inn in Concord, Mass., as part of the town’s annual book festival. As I scraped ice off my windshield in the still-dark of that frigid morning, I thought I must have been crazy to accept this invitation. Who in their right minds would leave a cozy bed before sunrise just to listen to a bunch of daydreamers talk about their made-up worlds?

Book lovers, that’s who. Contrary to media doomsayers, they (we) are still legion—as was obvious when I entered the cheerful pandemonium in the inn’s quaintly crooked but spacious dining room. There wasn’t a spare seat to be found.

Standing in that crowded room was doubly affecting to me. First, it happens to be the setting I chose for a climactic scene in The Widower’s Tale. (In my novel, the town I call Ledgely is a twin to Concord, the Ledgely Inn an alias for the Colonial.) Second, the books for sale at the breakfast were supplied by the Concord Bookshop.

The Concord Bookshop was my childhood bookstore from age nine on. I browsed there as often as I could finagle a ride from my mother. An annual ritual was my visit there in early December to choose titles for my Christmas wish list. I picked out art tomes, poetry anthologies, hardbound novels—expensive books I couldn’t afford with the wages I earned as a library page. (I can point to several of those books on my shelves today, their spines faded from the sun permeating various homes over the past forty years.) My mother probably drove back the next day to buy the books I’d held and coveted. There was no Amazon, no Alibris, no eBay, no ready ”discounts” on the price of a book. Imagine my emotions when, at age two or three, on a visit to his grandparents’ house, my first child asked, “Can I go to the Concord Bookshop with Grammy?” He’s 15 now, his little brother 10, and those visits are still a popular request. Heaven knows how much money my mother has spent there over the decades; I’m sure she’d tell you every penny was worth it.

Click “read more ” for Julia’s favorite indie booksellers!

My love of books—not just of their tactile pleasures but of their astonishing variety—was born in a book-filled house; my father is a scholar. For my sons, it started largely in a New York City shop called Books of Wonder, devoted to children’s books. I’d use any excuse to push the stroller there and park for hours. We’d page through volume after volume, discovering new authors, new topics, exotic illustrators, characters whose adventures we followed from one book to the next—something we could never have done online. And the staff knew which of the very newest titles we would love. While many other children’s bookstores have failed, this one survives—in part because it joined forces with a bakery. Somewhat sadly, the survival of many bookstores now depends on selling merchandise other than books.

I am not opposed to e-readers. Any technology that encourages the reading of literature is a good thing. Authors’ royalties from e-reader downloads are much smaller than what we make from hardcover sales, but you can’t deny it’s progress when a speed-reading book maven, headed off on vacation, can “pack” seven virtual books in a sleek electronic device.

But I believe that real books, those pulp-and-paste objects that threaten our backs when moved from home to home in old wine boxes, must survive—as should the most dedicated merchants who sell them. So if you are lucky enough to live near an independent bookstore, think hard before you exploit its browsability and then go home to order your books from an online retail behemoth. (Some bookstores, by the way, can “fill” your e-reader onsite.) Even if you don’t live near a good shop, many now maintain websites that enable you to order online just as easily as you might from Amazon. Powell’s Bookstore, in Portland, Oregon, is one such source. As a bricks-and-mortar establishment, Powell’s is a true Acropolis of books, a jaw-dropping warehouse-scale labryrinth of biblio-delight; but is a source I use even though I live on the opposite coast.

But there’s another reason it’s so essential to preserve independent bookstores: The people who run them and what they know. I read reviews and consider myself pretty “plugged in” to the literary cosmos, yet one of the things I love best about book-touring is the opportunity to compare notes with favorite booksellers around the country. I always come home with books by authors I’d never heard of—or books I’ve read about but didn’t realize I might love. Authors I’ve discovered that way include Ron Rash, John Dufresne, Tom Rachman, Stewart O’Nan, and Margot Livesey.

Here are a dozen bookstores I wish were right around the corner. Patronize them if you’re anywhere near them—or visit their websites, which often feature intelligent reviews of a far wider range of books than any newspaper or magazine covers. Many also run in-house book groups.

Town House Books and Cafe in St. Charles, Ill.: Owner David Hunt, manager Heidi Schmidt, and chef Doug Bella run this gem of an institution, located in an antique house adjoining a quaint restaurant. Browse, read, eat . . . and ask about the inimitable author dinners held in the café.

Faulkner House Books in New Orleans: You won’t believe how many books the learned, charming Joe DeSalvo can pack into the tall, narrow first floor of the house where William Faulkner wrote his first novel.

Book Passage, Corte Madera, Calif.: Spacious and extensively stocked, this place has great author events and a great staff, managed by my Number One Fan, Calvin Crosby, who’s read nearly every new work of adult fiction before it even hits the shelves.

Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts, Berkeley, Calif.: Marion Bundy and her staff maintain one of the loveliest shops I know, with a speciality in gardening books and tools.

Rakestraw Books, Danville, Calif.: Michael Barnard is one of the smartest readers around, and his store is a true haven. He threw a spectacular event for my second novel, The Whole World Over, serving extraordinary cakes and raising money for an AIDS charity.

Also in the Bay Area, Books Inc. is an independent micro-chain with stores in a dozen locations. In Miami, Books & Books has three sites, one built around an idyllic courtyard and café. In North Milwaukee, I had a wonderful time at a brave newcomer, Next Chapter Bookshop. If ever I had to move to Seattle, Elliott Bay Book Company and Third Place Books are two prime reasons I could learn to endure all that rain.

Here in Massachusetts, I love any excuse to visit Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Newtonville Books in Newton, and, out in South Hadley, the Odyssey Bookshop . . . though the Concord Bookshop will always be the “mothership” to me. Someday, if I’m lucky, maybe one of my sons will have a child who asks, “Can I go to the bookshop with Grammy?”

(Do you have a favorite independent bookstore? Please feel free to visit my Facebook page and recommend it there:

3 Responses to “An Ode To Indies: Why Small Bookstores Need Your Support”

  1. [...] a look at the discussion questions to get you started. And don’t forget about Glass’s ode to her favorite independent book stores—her list is a must-keep for your next road [...]

  2. Good post and straight to the point. I am not sure if this is really the best place to ask but do you guys have any thoughts on where to hire some professional writers? Thank you :)

  3. I love reading an article that will make people think. Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!