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This diversity of viewpoints suggests that some guesswork may be going on here. One gets the sense that independent booksellers are tossing explanations—and strategies—against the wall, and going with what sticks.
Still, there are some underlying verities.
First: Without robust community support, death is as close to assured as, well, taxes. This puts the onus on independent booksellers to earn and strengthen that community support.
Local owners understand this. In Woodstock, the Golden Notebook has launched a nonprofit fundraiser program. It will stay open any Monday night and donate 20 percent of sales to a local nonprofit. Meanwhile, over in Saugerties, the Inquiring Mind is operating a coffeehouse. “It’s a real community center, and it’s gotten a good response,” says Brian Donoghue. “We’re hopeful it will enable us to survive.” Donoghue also owns a company, Mental Health Resources, that helps people and their families cope with mental health challenges. “Sometimes we recommend books and they come into the store to buy them,” he says. “We’re providing a service to the community, and it provides some business benefits as well.”
Second: If the only way to have a shot at surviving is by tossing stuff against the wall, start slinging. In addition to hosting regular fundraisers, the Golden Notebook recently started buying and selling used books, and also hosted its first-ever school book fair. Owner Ellen Shapiro regularly appears on WAMC’s “Roundtable,” talking about books. A group of friends has formed a “Save Our Bookstore” committee to brainstorm other strategies.
Other bookstores are responding similarly. Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson has a working bar, featuring local brews, and an art supplies section. Baby Grand Books in Warwick has a thriving jazz and cabaret series, and just launched a College of Poetry led by local poets William Seaton and Robert Milby.
Steps like these are increasingly necessary. “I’m a book lover, an avid reader, and a very knowledgeable bookseller,” says Shapiro. Until recently, these qualities were enough to make her a “relatively successful businessperson.” But not now.
At the end of the day, if stores like the Golden Notebook are to survive, community members need to do more than open their hearts. They need to open their wallets. This can be difficult during times like these when wallets are skinny and every dollar counts.
Few people would question that local bookstores merit our support, and not just because their owners are our neighbors. Locally owned bookstores are community hubs—and fun ones, too, with idiosyncratic and often charming personalities. The Oblong Books store in Millerton provides a good example. “It’s become something of a destination,” says Suzanna Hermans. “People come from Massachusetts and western Connecticut. They like the store for its quirkiness and the creakiness of its floors.”
Independent bookstores are also, in the elegant formulation of the ABA’s Meg Smith, “curators of the culture.” They are honeybees—local pollinators of wisdom and learning. If we lose them, as with the honeybees, something precious and important will depart from our lives.
What makes the difference between wishing our local bookstores well and actually taking steps to sustain them? Here, there seems to be consensus: It’s all about education. More specifically, people need to be cognizant of the economic, social and cultural benefits of supporting not just independent bookstores, but locally-owned businesses generally. “If you want communities to remain viable and interesting, you need to support your local merchants,” says Brian Donoghue. “Otherwise the world will become virtual, and that will be a change for the worse.”
Meg Smith, the ABA’s resident optimist-in-chief, believes that the burgeoning localism movement is already helping independent booksellers. “Many bookstores are deeply involved in local independent business alliances,” she reports. “We’re seeing a shift in awareness among consumers about buying local. They are much more mindful about where they’re spending their money. The economic arguments for buying local are really taking root.”
The ABA has a well-received program called IndieBound, which promotes shopping locally. Still, timing is everything, and for many independent booksellers, the hour is getting late. The Grim Reaper has already made one bookstore stop to the mid-Hudson Valley, back in 2006 when New Paltz’s Ariel Books closed down. Are further visits in the offing? Quite possibly, if current trends are any indicator.