NEW YORK — Laura Romani, a Chicago-area resident with a background in education and library science, had been thinking about a new career.
“I was at home a few years ago, reflecting on all the experience I had gained and how I wanted to contribute to the Latino community, while allowing myself to be alone and use my love for books and my passion for multilingualism,” she says.
The solution: start a library. With the help of a local grant and stimulus checks she and her husband received during the pandemic, Romani launched Los Amigos Books, initially as an online store last year and now with a small dot. retail store with a bright blue facade in Berwyn, Illinois. It focuses on children’s stories in English and Spanish.
“Everything goes hand in hand,” Romani says of his decision.
Stores like Romani’s contributed to a year of solid growth and greater diversity for the American Booksellers Association, the trade group for independent booksellers. “primarily sell books” (more than 50% of inventory), as opposed to all stores carrying books. The ABA also no longer counts sellers with inactive memberships.
Hill attributes part of the rise to owners who delayed renewing their memberships to early 2021, reflecting uncertainty about the impact of the pandemic. But a significant number of additions, well over 100, are stores that opened in the past year, dozens of which are owned by people from a wider variety of racial and ethnic groups. These stores range from Libelula Books & Co. in San Diego to Yu and Me Books in New York’s Chinatown, from Modern Tribe Bookshop in Killeen, Texas, to Socialight Society in Lansing, Michigan.
The ABA has long been predominantly white, with Board Chairman Jamie Fiocco acknowledging in June 2020 – after the murder of George Floyd – that the association had not done enough to “remove barriers to membership and service for black, indigenous, and people of color.” Hill cited many recent initiatives, including expanding its diversity committee, diversifying its board, raising awareness and — for a time — waiving membership fees.
“The increase in BIPOC stores is a big change for us,” Hill said.
Like Romani, many new owners had previous careers, or still have them on the sidelines. Sonyah Spencer works as a consultant to help fund The Urban Reader in Charlotte, North Carolina, a store focused on African-American books that she opened in part because of the Black Lives Matters movement and concern over a increase in book bans. In Locust Grove, Georgia, Erica Atkins was a college teacher and trainer who, while recovering from surgery, had a vision—divine, she said—that she should open a store, this which is now Birdsong Books.
“I have dedicated my life to sharing knowledge,” she says. “Whenever I have a conversation with someone, I give book recommendations.”
In Ossining, New York, Amy Hall is vice president of Eileen Fisher who says her work in fashion inspired her to open Hudson Valley Books for Humanity. She had browsed her shelves and started thinking about how the durability of clothing might apply to what she was reading. She decided to create a store that would primarily carry second-hand books and otherwise reflect Ossining’s economic and ethnic diversity.
“I wanted to build a bookstore that would accommodate people from all these different segments of our community,” she said. The new books she keeps in stock include social justice and the environment.
After initially fearing the pandemic would devastate book sales, publishers have posted strong profits over the past two years and independent sellers have endured. Hill and others had feared hundreds of member stores would close in 2020. Instead, about 80 closed and only 41 closed in 2021.
The independent bookstore is a resilient activity, but rarely secure. For decades, it’s been about overcoming obstacles – whether it’s the rise of Barnes & Noble “supermarkets” in the 1990s that contributed to the bankruptcy of thousands of ABA members , the growing power of Amazon.com or recent issues such as the supply chain. delays and price inflation.
Spencer of the Urban Bookstore says higher costs, including rent and shipping, have kept it from breaking even. Atkins of Birdsong Books noticed a sharp increase in Bible prices, with the price of a King James edition increasing by several dollars. At Changing Hands bookstores in Arizona, buyer Miranda Myers noticed several price changes, including for Emily St. John Mandel’s “Sea of Tranquility,” one of spring’s top literary releases, and the upcoming Lore Olympus book by Rachel Smythe.
Myers said she was “certainly noticing these price increases happening more and more lately.” At the same time, according to Gayle Shanks, owner of Changing Hands, sales “are up. read more than ever.”