‘Indie’ bookstores have a resurgence amid pandemic

by John Post ([email protected]) 1,064 views 

Monica Diodati, left, and Rachel Slaton are co-owners of Two Friends Books in Bentonville. They opened the business in June 2020.

After weathering the storm of COVID-19, independent bookstores are seeing a resurgence both locally and nationally.

According to a Publishers Weekly article titled “Another Pandemic Surprise: A Mini Indie Bookstore Boom,” the American Booksellers Association has seen an 11.6% increase in membership and an 18.8% increase in new bookstores opening across the country in 2021.

“A COVID pandemic notwithstanding, independent bookstores had reached their bottom somewhere in the past decade,” said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas. “The ones that survived or are opening are the ones that found a niche that’s different than how bookstores operated before e-commerce and ebooks.”

The story of two Northwest Arkansas bookstores is in many ways a story of the pandemic —the shifting need of customers looking for an escape amid a lockdown and the shifting perspectives of residents who decided to take the plunge to open a small business. It’s also the story of creatively adapting to a new retail landscape that focuses on smaller spaces of highly-curated stock and doubling down on a bookstore’s experiential aspect that has long attracted patrons.

The model for indie bookstores has shifted away from focusing solely on book purchases to offering an experience for customers that includes food and drink options and communal spaces.

“I don’t know that you’re seeing a lot of standalone just bookstores surviving,” Jebaraj said. “The ones that do well tend to have spaces where people can sit and drink coffee or get a drink and look through the books at leisure, so it’s an experience more than a shopping activity. When people say, ‘I’m going to the bookstore,’ it’s not just like ‘I’m running to the grocery store to get something.’ It’s a longer commitment.”

Still, the allure of bookstores remains grounded in their primary wares: books. And even though customers may be paying more than they would be buying online, some customers will pay the cover price for the experience of walking into a bookstore and being able to hold a book in their hands.

“What is the difference between buying a shirt on Amazon versus going into a brick-and-mortar store and looking at the selection and buying a shirt there?” said Rachel Slaton, co-owner of Two Friends Books in Bentonville. “Books as objects are very special for a lot of people. People have very strong emotional attachments to books, for good reason. The feeling you get when you walk into a bookstore is just vastly different. There’s something special and a feeling of warmth you get when you’re surrounded by books.”

The industry has also shifted toward smaller spaces with less stock that is highly curated, reducing overhead and “ensuring every inch [of the store] is accounted for and working for us,” according to Slaton.

“You’re presented with a smaller selection than the worldwide publishing industry would give you,” she said. “It kind of narrows your choices in a good way.”

Two Friends Books and Pearl’s Books in Fayetteville are two of the many bookstores that have opened within the past two years, and their openings bookended the worst of the pandemic to date.

After success as a pop-up store in spaces around Bentonville, Slaton and Monica Diodati saw the need to open a bookstore in the city, as “it was becoming clear there was a demand for a dedicated space for a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Bentonville,” according to Slaton. They signed their lease in February 2020, just before the pandemic forced businesses to shut down.

“We signed the lease…and then the world shut down,” Slaton said. “But our thinking was, it was such an uncertain time, but you know what? We’re just going to keep moving ahead, one foot in front of the other.”

The store opened in June 2020 during the height of the pandemic, but Slaton saw an opportunity in the challenges facing the new store. The space is on the first floor of a contemporary apartment building on Southwest Seventh Street.

“What ended up happening is as people were being locked into their houses, they were returning to reading. So I think we provided a haven to people who wanted books as a sort of comfort and a source of learning,” she said. “It also just prompted us to be creative on our business model.”

That business model includes an online store, book subscription service, and a membership program that discounts in-store purchases. The store also creatively pairs books with other purchases, such as offering a picnic basket option that includes a bottle of wine or beers, sandwiches, and a handpicked book based on customers’ preferences.

“And here we are,” Slaton said. “We’ve survived, and we’re thriving.”

Daniel and Leah Jordan dreamed of owning a bookstore, but it had always been a far-off aspiration. Then the pandemic hit, and their perspectives changed.

“We realized that we wanted to do something different and have more autonomy with our schedules and have more freedom and creativity with what we were doing,” Leah Jordan said. “And a bookstore was something we felt like the community needed and something we were excited and passionate about.”

The result was Pearl’s Books, which opened in downtown Fayetteville in October 2021 and has seen an enthusiastic reception from the city.

“We’ve been really busy, which we’re super grateful for,” Jordan said.

Like many other bookstores, Pearl’s offers beer and wine, with the goal of “making a space that’s a little more than just a place to go and buy books.” They also host literary events, including a fall event series featuring Kevin Brockmeier, Tim Miller and John Vanderslice. And while they don’t have an online store yet, they are listening to customers for feedback on other amenities or options they may want.

“We wanted to open just the brick-and-mortar and figure out how to do that because neither of us has owned a business before, and we have pretty limited retail experience,” Jordan said.

Bookstores play an essential role in a community, according to Slaton and the Jordans – not just in providing a space to sell literature but to promote literacy in the region.

“A key mission of our business is promoting literary arts in the Ozarks,” Slaton said. “We want to help put Northwest Arkansas on the map, helping NWA grow in its stature in the literary world.”

To help advance that goal, Two Friends started an Ozarks Writers Festival this year to promote writers in the area via readings and book signings. Pearl’s Books has also begun partnering with institutions in the community and hopes to eventually work with local schools to host book fairs and other events.

When discussing her hopes for the bookstore’s role in Fayetteville, Leah Jordan pointed to a social media post made by a resident in the days after the store’s opening.

“She posted a picture on social media and said, ‘Pearl’s already feels like a Fayetteville institution,’” she said. “I think that’s just the highest form of compliment, and that sums up what I hope success looks like for us. That we’re a pillar in the community that supports literacy and helps make reading accessible.”