Indie Bookstores Are Back After Decades of Decline

The history of bookstores has been far bleaker than readers might have hoped. The end began in 2011 with the closure of Borders, a bookselling giant responsible for the death of many a local bookstore. Borders’ attempts at resurgence were numerous and failed, culminating in their disastrous launch of the Kobo: an e-reader with no internet. Other chains were soon to follow. Book World, the leading book retailer of the Midwest, closed its doors in 2017. Barnes & Noble hasn’t yet taken a tumble… but it has taken quite the hit. The retailer plans to close 167 stores by 2022, leaving swaths of the country—even highly populated areas—without large chain bookstores. Although Washington D.C. spends more money on readingthan anywhere else in the United States, the District lost its last B&N back in 2015.


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Chain bookstores were once the destroyers of indie bookshops. With their resources and massive retail spaces (which usually housed cutting-edge merchandise like alphabetical CD collections) it was challenging for the smaller local store to compete. After the recession, this dynamic reversed. Over the past eight years, the number of indie bookstores has increased by 25% while the larger retailers have faltered.


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The explanation might be as complicated as it is simple: people have decided that they like to read books. That can be the only explanation when technological innovations have failed—the Kobo was an obvious disaster, and, while Barnes & Noble’s Nook helped it from meeting Borders’ fate, it hasn’t saves its clear decline in sales. It’s also possible that indie bookstores can appeal to niche markets-in particular, LGBT+ bookstores are able to cater directly to their clientele. These stores provide more than just retail: they also offer a sense of community that Amazon cannot.


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“Independent bookshops are important because we’re a refuge, and we’re dead against everything becoming the same,” said Daniel Ross, proprietor of Bristol bookstore Storysmith. The UK in particular has experienced a resurgence of the indie bookstore. Since 1995, the number of independent bookstores has declined from 1,894 to a mere 867. In 2017, the decline plateaued, the number of stores increasing by one. And just a year later, the number spiked for the first time in over twenty years to reach 883.

While the number of indie bookstores hasn’t reached its 80s peak, the comeback is a sign of an even greater resurgence. It demonstrates that while big bookstores can’t hold up to Amazon’s onslaught, neighborhood bookstores can—and that means they likely will.

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