Beyond Books: Independent Bookstores Inspire, Connect Community

By Anita L. Sherman
Anita L. Sherman
Anita L. Sherman
Anita L. Sherman is an award-winning journalist who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for local papers and regional publications in Virginia. She now works as a freelance writer and is working on her first novel. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four, and she resides in Warrenton, Va. Anita can be reached at anitajustwrite@gmail.com
August 11, 2021 Updated: August 11, 2021

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”
-Neil Gaiman, English author

Enjoy a good read?

Many of us do.

The written word, whether viewed on an electronic device, listened to on audio, or absorbed through the rhythm of gently turning pages, still captivates our imaginations and engages a chunk of our busy schedules. We are a nation of readers. According to recent numbers from market researcher and data gatherer Statista, 72 to 79 percent of us enjoy what books have to offer.

Aside from adding to our vocabularies, expanding our knowledge base, and piquing our interests, reading is a known stress reducer. The act of reading temporarily takes us away, introduces us to new places, intriguing faces, plots, and points of view. Generally, even if it’s a can’t-put-down crime thriller, it’s relaxing to read.

I’m a bona fide bibliophile. My office library is filled with shelves of books. I have many friends who are voracious readers. I have grandchildren who are discovering the joy of their own libraries. 

I know that a click away on Amazon will have my choice of reading material to me the next day and for less money. That’s not a bad thing. But perusing the aisles of your local, independent bookstore (known affectionately as “indies”) has many benefits beyond supporting a local business and finding a good read. It’s a mindset and a choice that honors and respects writers and readers. And independent bookstores have a long reputation for their engagement in their respective communities.

Many businesses, including booksellers, took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before that, big bookstore names like Borders fell to the wayside leaving many communities devoid of a nearby book source. This may have contributed to independent bookstores staying alive and thriving. Many put on their creative hats to make service and selection at a small store something online can’t provide—something desirable for the discriminating customer.

At last count, there are around 10,800 bookstores in the United States from chains to the smaller, independent bookstores, which make up roughly 2,500 of that number.

Certainly, there have been closures, but new ones spring up as well. Historically, before the advent of mall chains and online shopping, almost every bookstore in the United States was independent and experiencing a golden book age in the late ’70s. And many of them had a cat roaming freely or a dog curled up in the bay window.

The future of independent bookstores is brighter in my mind than bust. Here are four independent bookstores spotlighted out of the thousands that dot the country, from Powell’s—a giant among independent bookstores—to The Open Book, a little gem in my hometown of Warrenton, Virginia.

From large to small and in-between, independent bookstores go way beyond books. They serve to connect the community and to inspire the mind. Their hearts are strong.

The Mighty Powell’s, Portland, Oregon

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Powell’s Books celebrates a 50-year anniversary this year. They have anchored this location on West Burnside Street in Portland, Ore., for decades. (Courtesy of Powell’s Books)

Powell’s Books, which opened in Portland, Oregon, in 1971, is now celebrating a 50-year history (check out their 50 recommended reads). It’s known by many as The City of Books. Housing thousands of new, used, and rare editions, this bastion of books has the reputation for being the world’s largest independent bookstore.

The beginnings of Powell’s started in Chicago with an enterprising University of Chicago graduate student, Michael Powell, opening his first bookstore.

His father, Walter Powell, so enjoyed the experience of helping his son with the Chicago store that he returned to Portland and opened his own used bookstore.

In 1979, Michael returned to Portland and joined his father, creating a recipe for bookstores with a new menu: used and new, hardcover and paperback all sharing the same shelves, open every day of the year and staffed by folks who are knowledgeable and love books. It’s a recipe that’s been time-tested and works.

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Family-owned Powell’s Books, in Portland, Ore., is so large that it is known as The City of Books. (C.EchevesteShutterstock)

At 50 years and counting, Powell’s Books, complete with coffee and gift shops, artists and musicians paying visits, and a myriad of events, is coming out of COVID, despite layoffs and pressure from online sales giant Amazon, in forward motion. Powell’s remains as a third-generation family-owned business with Emily Powell leading the way.

“My grandfather taught me that our job is to connect the writer’s voice with the reader’s ear and not let our egos get in between. My father taught me not only the love of the book itself but also how to love the business of bookselling,” said Powell on their website.

Powell’s may well be the giant on the nationwide block in terms of independent bookstores, but let’s take a look at just a tiny smattering of smaller independent bookstores dotting the country, who is running them, and how they collectively continue to support and share the written word with readers worldwide.

Skylark Bookshop, Columbia, Missouri

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Skylark Bookshop located in Columbia, Mo., is a gathering place for book enthusiasts, particularly when there is a special event. (Courtesy of Skylark Bookshop)

One of my most favorite reads of late is “Migrations” by Charlotte McConaghy. When I went searching to learn more about this young Australian writer, I came across an interview with her at a bookstore in Missouri.

“Oh, some thought me completely mad,” said Alex George, the owner of Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, when he opened his store in 2018.

“I’ve always thought bookstores are, first and foremost, places of inspiration. The skylark is not much to look at, really, but it has a beautiful song, and has inspired a great deal of wonderful art over the years,” citing songwriter Hoagy Carmichael as an example.

George, a native of the United Kingdom, moved to Columbia 17 years ago. He has published seven novels, three of those, “A Good American,” “Setting Free the Kites,” and “The Paris Hours,” were chosen by the nation’s independent booksellers for the “Indie Next List.” He is also the founder and director of the Unbound Book Festival held in Columbia, which brings together poets and authors, hosts panel discussions, and brings authors into the classroom, to name just a bit of the programming. Canceled in 2020 and online for 2021, it’s hoped to resume in person in 2022.

“It was the enthusiasm for the festival which got me to thinking about opening my own renaissance bookstore,” said George who, in addition to being an author and bookstore owner, is also an attorney and runs his own law firm.

“Being a bookseller is better,” laughed George, who said his clients already know about his passion for books. And so do his customers.

“When you go into an independent bookstore you get a lot more in return,” said George, freely admitting that Amazon could well be knocking out the competition by offering lower prices but the experience of book purchasing is different.

“Talking to knowledgeable staff to get a recommendation is not a small thing … customers are beginning to understand that, and then there’s the experiential pleasure of browsing.”

“When I look around the shop … it’s a funny job, we know books can be purchased more cheaply online, we know that to be true. We offer an absolutely first-class experience, we work hard to earn our customer’s business.”

Skylark carries only new books and that is by design. “I want to have control over the titles we bring in,” George said. “If we take in used books you don’t know what you will be getting. There are so many new titles coming out every week, we can only stock a fraction. We want to be able to curate the inventory.”

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Skylark Bookshop, located in Columbia, Mo., carries some 15,000 volumes. (Courtesy of Skylark Bookshop)

In addition to books, the store also carries other items such as journals, T-shirts, and tote bags. And then there are those Blackwing pencils. “We’re the only authorized dealer in Missouri to carry them,” said George of these sleekly designed pencils reintroduced from their first appearance in the 1930s.

George is keen on discovering new ways to engage his readers, and offers a “book spa.”

“It’s a gift, a personalized shopping experience—you can come in and sit with one of our staff for an hour, receive book recommendations … it’s book pampering,” he said.

Independent booksellers receive many advanced reader copies. Publishers distribute them not for sale but to have them read and reviewed to gauge future publishing interest.

As an author, George, who is a big fan of mysteries, commits to reading at least 50 pages of the many advanced reader books that pass through the shop.

Skylark carries some 15,000 volumes. George credited the community’s support for their continued success. “Being a bookstore owner, I feel unique … a force for good,” said George, who frequents other bookstores and keeps abreast of what’s going on in the industry.

Skylark was closed several months during the pandemic but found an opportunity amidst the chaos. “We have an amazing website now that we didn’t have before. We now ship to all 50 states,” he said.

“We are eternally grateful for all the support we received during the pandemic. Folks would send emails, call us up, we’re incredibly grateful.”

In addition to a robust staff, Skylark has another friendly soul who dishes out affectionate welcomes to visitors—Theo (short for Thelonious), a lovable black dog.

George enjoys the comradery among independent booksellers. “We’re all in the same boat pushing wonderfully against the tide.”

Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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Hub City Bookshop’s resident cat, Zora Nelle. (Courtesy of Hub City Bookshop)

More than 25 years ago, three visionary folks connected over coffee to talk about collaborating on the creation of a book showcasing stories about the town they lived in— Spartanburg, South Carolina. By telling and sharing these stories, their hope was to stir up interest in revitalizing a dying town.

Betsy Teter, John Lane, and Gary Henderson called it The Hub City Writers Project, recalling an earlier, more flourishing Spartanburg and giving kudos to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Writers Project, established during the Depression.

What happened during the following decades wasn’t only the publishing of this anthology but also the creation of a bookstore, a publishing house, and a growing network of writers.

Their bold and empowered vision brings us to today where Hub City Bookshop is a full-service independent bookstore that hosts more than 100 events a year, most of them free and open to the public. All following their mission to “cultivate readers and nurture writers.”

Recently celebrating their 11th anniversary, they, along with their neighbor Little River Coffee Bar, have been part of the city’s renaissance, a cultural and creative hub.

Twice named one of the “South’s Best Bookstores” by Southern Living magazine, in 2019, they were selected as “Bookstore of the Year” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.

Lofty accolades for this charming bookstore located in a historic Masonic temple in downtown Spartanburg. Books are cherished here. Established and new authors are encouraged, praised, and supported.

At the helm, serving as executive director since 2017 is Anne Waters. Hers is a natural fit as her career includes working in regional book publishing for 20 years. She’s also taken time to own and run an art gallery, a yoga studio, and raise her son. When her husband’s work took him to Spartanburg, she was already familiar with the Hub City Writers Project, where she started as a bookshop manager.

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Anne Waters is the executive director at Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, S.C. She is holding a special edition of “The Hub City Writers Project,” which chronicles its 25-year history from 1995 to 2020. (Courtesy of Hub City Bookshop)

“I’d never worked in the nonprofit world before coming here,” said Waters. “It’s a great organization and we owe it all to our board members. It’s a wonderful collaboration.”

Waters was instrumental in bringing a regional booksellers convention to Spartanburg, infusing enthusiasm and energy into the city in northern South Carolina. A strong supporter of the American Booksellers Association, she was pleased that the city was able and receptive to hosting one of their events, which brings hundreds together. Waters attended their Winter Institute held in Baltimore, Maryland.

“It’s the crème de la crème, a smallish, intimate group. They’ve done a great job of incentivizing younger and diverse booksellers. I have such high regard for the publishing industry.”

An upcoming initiative is a partnership with the Chapman Cultural Center to launch the Watson-Brown Foundation Southern Studies Fellowship in Arts and Letters.

“This is very exciting,” said Waters of the three-year initiative that will select one writer and one artist to travel the South on a collaborative project.

For Waters, being a part of the bookseller’s world is a community like no other. “Booksellers share ideas that work, we love the written word, we cherish books almost quaint in a way.”

At Hub City, used as well as new books are sold. Their selection is heavily curated, and the knowledgeable staff helps with the bookstore’s success.

“We know our customers, we buy for our customers, we buy for our community. It’s important to know your marketplace.”

At 12,000 volumes, Hub City Bookshop is at the heart of this city’s reinvention. Specializing in Southern literature, literary fiction and nonfiction, history, children’s books, and titles from Hub City Press, proceeds benefit creative writing education, community outreach, and publishing.

Waters acknowledges that for some, bookstores can be intimidating. “Many consider it as a library so it’s imperative to make it comfortable. We want to make books available to everyone.”

Ongoing events at the book shop include opportunities to meet and chat with authors. Two were recent guests in a zoom event held in early July, Caroline Cooney (“The Grandmother Plot”) and Leah Weiss (“All the Little Hopes”). Weiss, in discussing her forthcoming book, happily talked about a recent road trip that she and her husband had taken.

“I went into 45 bookstores in 20 states,” Weiss said. “Independent booksellers are alive and well.”

The Open Book, Warrenton, Virginia

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The Open Book offers a variety of book clubs for different ages. (Courtesy of The Open Book)

Warrenton, Virginia, located roughly 45 miles west of our nation’s capital is my hometown. I wasn’t happy when Borders closed but I was ecstatic when the rumor mill in town talked of an independent bookstore about to open.

The Open Book opened its doors in March 2019 to a welcoming and excited community. The two women behind the vision were Cammie Fuller and Rachel Sirene. Both book aficionados, they wanted to fill a gap left when BJ’s Books (a used bookstore) closed in 2014 and the big chain Borders was closed in 2011. They felt the timing was right and they were ready.

The store was packed on opening day.

Brian Noyes, the owner of local Red Truck Bakery, was there for a signing event for his first cookbook—“Red Truck Bakery Cookbook: Gold-Standard Recipes from America’s Favorite Rural Bakery,” which had recently been released.

He also brought along sweet things—cake and shamrock cookies baked by his staff.

It was a festive and joyous occasion supported by local officials and heralded by book readers young and old.

As the months passed, the shelves became fuller and word continued to spread about Old Town Warrenton’s newest bookish business neighbor.

And then there was COVID-19 hitting hard just a year later. By this time, Fuller was running the bookstore herself with part-time help.

“We never closed,” she said, but while customers weren’t allowed inside, Fuller got in the delivery business taking books to customers and eventually greeting them curbside to hand them their purchases.

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Located in Warrenton, Virginia, The Open Book is owned by Cammie Fuller, who is often seen behind the cash register. (Anita L. Sherman)

“It was a challenging and hard time,” but Fuller has survived, and The Open Book is fully open again.

“I always had online capacity from day one,” Fuller said, admitting that it really kicked into gear during the pandemic. “For me, it was difficult pivoting to online. The amount of time for each sale seemed to take longer and there was only one person here.”

While a major technological shift, now, it doesn’t matter where in the country you are, she’ll gladly send you your purchase.

Fuller chuckles. A children’s librarian for more than seven years before launching the bookstore, she said the genesis of the store’s name is “a bit comical.”

“At times, I do struggle with not being an open book myself,” she said. But you’d never consider this lady an introvert; she is there most days to greet familiar and new customers with bright eyes and an engaging smile.

“The store is meant to be a welcoming place for readers of all genres, to have the spirit of an open book, to find what you are looking for,” Fuller said.

What kinds of books does Fuller like? “I have a lot of favorites in different genres, generally more fiction, nature, and science if it’s nonfiction.” The Open Book caters to a variety of book clubs for different ages. The adult book club generates a list nearly a year ahead from titles that Fuller finds to ones the group suggests. She purposely will add titles that give members a chance to explore new authors and subject matter, perhaps nudge them out of a reading comfort zone.

Fuller is ferocious about protecting her family time. “There’s no question that it has changed the family dynamic,” Fuller said, “but it is working.”

“I figure out a way to be there. Priority is family,” she continued, whether it’s fishing, family time, or baseball games. “To lose that connection would be devastating.”

Her caring and commitment to family spill over into her generous and giving nature at the store. Fuller was one of the organizers of the Warrenton Wizard Walk, a day of fun and magic for the entire family.

“It’s meant to bring the community together,” said Fuller of the day-long July event where wizards and magical characters in books came alive along the town’s main street. Several of the stores participated in different activities.

“We’re the unicorn block,” laughed Fuller, knowing how popular the mythical horse is to many of her younger customers.

Fuller, like many of her bookseller colleagues around the country, believes that books can change people and change communities. Many of those owners were good mentors to Fuller when the shop opened, freely giving her advice and support.

“Booksellers are so cool. I’m so excited with the people I meet, they are awesome and there are fantastic shops all over the country.”

The Open Book is young but the future is bright. They’ve had one brand year, a COVID year, and now the doors are open wide.

Anita L. Sherman is an award-winning journalist who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for local papers and regional publications in Virginia. She now works as a freelance writer and is working on her first novel. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four, and she resides in Warrenton, Va. Anita can be reached at anitajustwrite@gmail.com

American Booksellers Association

Founded in 1900, this is a national not-for-profit trade organization that works with booksellers and industry partners to ensure the success and profitability of independently owned book retailers and to assist in expanding the community of the book.
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Mark your calendar for the next Independent Bookstore Day, a one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country on the last Saturday in April. Every store is unique and independent, and every party is different. But in addition to authors, live music, cupcakes, scavenger hunts, kid’s events, art tables, readings, barbecues, contests, and other fun stuff, there are exclusive books and literary items that you can only get on that day.

Anita L. Sherman
Anita L. Sherman
Anita L. Sherman is an award-winning journalist who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for local papers and regional publications in Virginia. She now works as a freelance writer and is working on her first novel. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four, and she resides in Warrenton, Va. Anita can be reached at anitajustwrite@gmail.com