NEW YORK — Laura Romani, a Chicago-area resident majoring in education and library science, was thinking about a new career.
“I was at home a few years ago reflecting on all the experiences I had gained and how I wanted to contribute to the Latino community while allowing myself to be alone and use my love of books and my passion for multilingualism,” she says.
The solution: Create a bookstore. With the help of a local grant and stimulus checks she and her husband received during the pandemic, Romani launched Los Amigos Books, first as an online store last year and now with a small brick-and-mortar store with a bright blue front in Berwyn, Illinois. 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 bookstore owners. According to CEO Alison Hill, the association now has 2,010 members in 2,547 locations, an increase of more than 300 since spring 2021. This is the ABA’s highest number in years, although the association tightened its rules in 2020 and allowed only stores that “primarily sell books” (more than 50 percent of the inventory), as opposed to all stores offering books. The ABA also no longer counts sellers whose memberships are inactive.
Hill attributed some of the increase to owners delaying membership renewals in early 2021, reflecting uncertainty about the impact of the pandemic. But a significant number of the additions, well over 100, are stores that have opened in the past year, dozens of them 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 the Modern Tribe Bookshop in Killeen, Texas, to the Socialight Society in Lansing, Michigan.
The ABA has long been predominantly white, with board president Jamie Fiocco admitting in June 2020 — after the killing of George Floyd — that the association has not done enough to “remove barriers to membership and service to black, indigenous and people of color.” Hill cited numerous recent initiatives, including expanding his diversity committee, diversifying its board, increased outreach and — for a time — waiving membership fees.
“The increase in BIPOC stores is a big change for us,” says Hill.
Like Romani, many new owners have had previous careers or still have them on the side. Sonya Spencer works as a consultant to help fund The Urban Reader in Charlotte, North Carolina, a store focused on African-American books, which she opened in part because of the Black Lives Matters movement and her concern about the 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 that is now Birdsong Books.
“I have dedicated my life to sharing knowledge,” she says. “Whenever I talk to someone, I make book recommendations.”
In Ossining, New York, Amy Hall is a vice president at Eileen Fisher, who says her work in fashion inspired her to open Hudson Valley Books for Humanity. She was looking through her bookshelves and started thinking about how sustainability in clothing could apply to what she was reading. She decided to open a store that would sell mostly used books and otherwise reflect Ossining’s economic and ethnic diversity.
“I wanted to build a bookstore that welcomes people from all these different segments of our community,” she said. The new books she is curating focus on social justice and the environment, among other issues.
After initial fears that the pandemic would wipe out book sales, publishers have posted strong profits over the past two years and independent sellers have held on. Hill and others feared that hundreds of member stores could close in 2020. Instead, about 80 closed and only 41 went out of business in 2021.
The independent book trade is a sustainable business, but rarely a sure one. For decades, it’s been a story of overcoming obstacles—whether the rise of Barnes & Noble’s “superstores” in the 1990s, which helped drive thousands of ABA members out of business, the growing power of Amazon.com, or such recent problems such as supply chain delays and price inflation.
Urban Bookstore’s Spencer says higher costs, especially for rent and shipping, have left her struggling to break even. Atkins of Birdsong Books noticed a big jump in the price of Bibles, with the price of the King James Edition increasing by several dollars. At Changing Hands Bookstores in Arizona, buyer Miranda Myers spotted several price changes, including for Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, one of spring’s best literary releases, and the upcoming Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe.
Myers said he has “definitely noticed these price increases happening more and more recently.” Meanwhile, according to Changing Hands owner Gail Shanks, sales are “up, way up. We had the best first quarter we’ve ever had in the store’s history, and this second quarter is on the up. People seem to be reading more than ever.”