A new wave of small, idiosyncratic bookstores have popped up in Columbus over the past two years. Here's how these literary holdouts have survived amid retail volatility—and what other businesses can learn from their comeback story.
What's in a book? More than just words, it seems. Despite generational differences, corporatization, e-commerce and e-readers, a devoted populace seems unable to abandon the ritual of turning physical pages and browsing rows of spines, just as they've done since the first pages rolled off Gutenberg's printing press nearly 600 years ago. And those shoppers don't congregate just anywhere. They crave curated merchandise, lovingly-brewed coffee, cozy reading spots—in other words, independent bookstores, the comeback kids of the publishing industry.
A decade ago, online giants like Amazon were expected to wipe out the quirky literary shop around the corner, sweeping up all the book business with low costs and supreme convenience. And, according to the American Booksellers Association, headquartered in White Plains, New York, it seemed like that was happening from 1995-2000 as 43 percent of independent bookstores—in the shadow of online retail and big brands like Borders and Barnes & Noble—closed.
Today, the notion of the struggling independent bookstore lives on, but the reality is much different. The death watch, in fact, turned into a revival, with a new generation of indie stories popping up all over the country. The trend is evident in Columbus, the home of several distinctive new book shops that are writing a surprising new chapter in the central Ohio retail scene.
“It's like everyone watched You've Got Mail and now that's just permanently been planted in everyone's mind,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. “The fact has been that in the last six or seven years, data shows that the indie bookstore market is far, far healthier than often is perceived. We like to joke and paraphrase Mark Twain that ‘the rumors of our death are slightly premature.' ”
So what changed? Retail expert Lee Peterson, executive vice president of brand, strategy and design at Dublin's WD Partners, credits a new wave of retail that allows for such places to exist and flourish again. “I'll go to this bookshop and have coffee, and I'll browse,” Peterson says. “I'll buy a book there too because now I have that possibility.”
Readers, it turns out, have come full circle, embracing old-timey shopping experiences (though with modern updates). And that plot twist could have implications beyond bookstores.
The Third Wave
Research by WD Partners outlines three waves of retail throughout history. The first wave is comprised of modest ma-and-pa businesses that evolved from a traditional marketplace of vendors selling wares all in one spot. Hundreds of years later, in the 1950s, a second wave of store homogenization, discounts, convenience and big corporations rose—a wave that damaged eclectic local establishments.
Perhaps as a revolt to that uniformity, here in the third wave, consumers are beginning to care about products being “better,” not cheaper or easier to get. They care about novel experiences, one-of-a-kind places and local ties. The WD Partners' paper describes the third wave as “experienced and emotionally based retail with a meaningful social ethos. It requires the revival of older tactics, but reinterpreted and reapplied with modern technical and logistical innovations.”
Not every consumer is on board, of course, but enough have embraced the trend to begin to have economic impact, with the return of the independent bookstore as a particularly striking example.
“The first thing that's probably as significant as anything is the massive growth of the localism movement in America,” Teicher says. “There are tens of millions of American consumers who are making decisions every day to shop in a locally-owned, indie business because it is a locally-owned, indie business.”
Teicher recognizes, as Peterson does, that consumers also will purchase books at more convenient places, but indie appeal is still strong. “At least some piece of their retail dollar is going to be spent locally, and that localism movement is huge—bookstores have been at the forefront of that movement across the country,” Teicher says. “The localism movement in Columbus is going to be different than it is in Cleveland or in Los Angeles or in New York. It is by very definition local, and therefore different everywhere—but it is clearly having an impact on customer behavior and indie bookstores have certainly benefited from it.”
Linda Kass, who opened Gramercy Books in Bexley in December 2016, doesn't feel like she's competing with e-commerce or big book brands, simply because Gramercy provides something different. “Amazon is immediate—you want to buy a book, and you know what you want and you don't have a minute to do anything, you just buy that or any other product on Amazon,” says Kass, the author of the historical novel Tasa's Song and a longtime community activist in Columbus. “But when you come to a bookstore, you have an entire experience. It's a ‘third space.' You're browsing, you're discovering, you're connecting with people, you're talking to the knowledgeable people here and maybe learning something … or getting a book you didn't even think you were going to get.”
The fancy to purchase something that is local or high-quality can be seen across a variety of sectors—restaurants, apparel, grooming products, in addition to bookstores. Another thing inextricably tied to purchasing books is the importance of browsing. The experience of thumbing through potentials with alluring covers, asking the shop help what they'd recommend, perching somewhere to read the first chapter. The best way to browse is still to go to a bricks-and-mortar store.
“Our publisher colleagues have figured out that they need a viable network of bricks-and-mortar locations where consumers can discover books, they need that network to thrive and grow as much as we need it to, because that's where consumers find out about books,” says Teicher. “The internet is wonderful if you know exactly what you want to buy, but the vast majority of book purchases occur because consumers browse the shelf or spend time in a library looking at an array of titles, and that browsing takes place in a physical location.”
Before Kass opened Gramercy Books, she conducted her own market research. Her findings matched those of a study done on independent bookstores by Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School. His report—titled “Reframing Collective Identity in Response to Multiple Technological Discontinuities: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores”—focuses on the expected decline and surprising rise of independent bookstores from the '90s to now. His findings peg “three C's” that have fueled the resurgence: community (similar to localism), curation (the specific set of chosen books a store decides to sell) and convening (the idea of a bookstore as an intellectual gathering place).
Kass found that from 2009-2015, there was a 35-40 percent jump in the number of independent bookstores, essentially replacing what was lost before. “Everyone always predicts the demise of independent bookstores throughout history,” she says. “Somehow, independent bookstores have always found a way to reinvent themselves.”
What's more, e-books haven't quite affected the industry as predicted. Eric Obenauf—co-owner of independent publisher/café/bookstore/event space, Two Dollar Radio—cites an e-book estimate that never came to fruition. “There was all the doom and gloom stuff,” he says. “They said in 10 years, it was going to be a 50-50 split between what we read in terms of print books and e-books. That's not the case. E-books are only maybe like 4 percent of sales, which is crazy.”
Obenauf's South Side retail outlet—which opened in September 2017—looks like a reader's candy store, with its eclectic book and magazine offerings lying on tables and propped against walls. “I think a lot of it speaks to the inherent value of the book, because books have been around for centuries,” he says. “It's sort of already the perfect technology.”
“It's almost a false connection,” Kass adds, referring to digital book purchases. “You're connecting electronically. A consumer research study by [global data analytics company] Nielsen found that the best method of finding and purchasing new books is still standing in a room of books and browsing. That is the advantage that real books have over e-books. People still want to hold a book, smell a book, feel a book. It's a human thing to do. … I think the only thing you don't do with a book is taste it.”
The new Columbus indie bookstores are often built around unique business models. Two Dollar Radio, for instance, is first an independent small press that has been publishing “quirkier, more distinctive voices” for 13 years. It was started by Eric Obenauf and his wife, Eliza Wood-Obenauf, two self-described book-loving idealists.
Now, its portfolio includes about 60 books and the storefront on Parsons Avenue that carries its entire published works, along with books and magazines from other indie publishers. Some of Two Dollar's books are gaining mainstream attention. In 2017, Two Dollar Radio published a book of essays by Columbus native Hanif Abdurraqib called They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which was a Best Book of 2017 according to NPR,Buzzfeed,Paste Magazine,Esquire,Chicago Tribune and more.
The newly-opened location is a café/store hybrid that offers coffee, alcohol—one of the only places in Columbus that carries Hoof Hearted brews on draft—vegan eats that Obenauf whips up himself, a bar and stools crafted from repurposed wood. There are also many events—everything from brunch and magic shows to a puppy adoption. The seemingly only nod to convention is a book club, which has proven so popular that participants have filled four pages of signup sheets. Big windows made up of smaller glass panes allow light to pour over the smattering of tables, while art includes a giant pink-painted moth that appears to be a real insect resting on the wall, odds and ends from antique and thrift stores and a mural of a smug unicorn in sunglasses that Obenauf painted himself.
In addition to reading manuscripts, designing book covers, operating the café and cooking the food, Obenauf is putting together 2018's Flyover Fest, a three-day festival in the Old North/South Clintonville area featuring music, literature and film. One of the days will be for a book fair. There will be publishers from Rochester, New York; Louisville, Kentucky; St. Louis and other places there to sell books. The festival takes place on May 10-12, and tickets are $10.
Even though the space hasn't been open for long, it's been bustling. “[The customer base] is a good cross section of Columbus in general. People use the space for different reasons,” says Obenauf. “There's a steady, consistent group of people who come in from day to day to work on their laptops, and then there's people who come out weekly on Sundays for the popup brunches, and then there's a lot of people who randomly stop by for the more experiential part of the store.” The Parsons location was chosen in part because of its affordable price tag, but Obenauf says he thinks the city of Columbus is a place that is open to new ideas and “crossing mediums,” which is precisely what his café attempts to do.
And it's not alone. Kass says Gramercy Books is, for her, the “combination of a dream … and just the opportunity that presented itself.” While Gramercy looks and functions more like a typical bookstore with rows of tall shelves, it defies the designation with some extra offerings. To start, Kittie's Cakes is attached to it, which raises the question, who doesn't want to eat a homemade mini cupcake or everything-spice-seasoned buttermilk biscuit breakfast sandwich while they devour a book? The store pup, a black labradoodle named Wally, has been well-trained to stop short of the bakery and gaze longingly. Beyond treats, Gramercy has well-stocked poetry, music, local authors and children's sections—the poetry section even includes Hanif Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us.
Kass says that, generally, indie bookstores have about an 80 percent overlap in the books they carry, but the distinctively curated titles—the music and poetry focus is a reflection of Kass' personal interests and passions—results in one-of-a-kind experiences. Many of the roughly two events a week offered by Gramercy are music- or poetry-related, including poetry readings and “Songwriter Spotlights,” which are usually musical performances but are sometimes conversations with an artist. Recently, a friend of Kass', Alec Wightman—a Columbus lawyer, concert promoter and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame board member—interviewed music journalist Holly Gleason about women artists in the country music industry.
“Part of the mission of this bookstore is to be a community gathering place,” Kass says. “That's kind of part of our DNA.” Without this added piece, a bookstore is just a purveyor of products, but this focus makes it an “intellectual center,” according to Raffaelli's study. “The community gathering places—the successful ones—where they have a lot of conversation and connection among people—that is what Raffaelli called ‘convene,' ” Kass says. “So we had different words for things, but ultimately I, in my informal way, and he in his Harvard business way, were finding similar things.”
Still, shoppers need to be on board. “Obviously, what they have to do, though, is buy books,” Kass says. And they are buying them. “I was just looking at March, and our numbers are trending 15-20 percent higher this year than last March,” she says. Another way she can tell is through the customer loyalty program that was introduced shortly after the store opening. Right now, Gramercy has 4,100 members, with 1,000 new members per quarter.
Kass takes Gramercy's role as a community center seriously. She has partnered with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, Fisher College of Business, Capital University School of Management and Leadership, the Drexel Theatre for books-to-film nights, and Kittie's. A partnership with CAPA is currently in the works. “We're trying to constantly reach out and see what relates to other entities in the city whether it's just a human services nonprofit or educational organizations, cultural institutions, things like that,” she says.
Ultimately, Gramercy's more-traditional model is seeing steady growth, just as Kass' research predicted. “If you bring the right kind of bookstore to a community that will appeal to people's diverse interests, they will come and come often,” she says. “That's what's going on here.”
More than Money
Across town, a bookstore with a social enterprise model just opened in the Westgate area of the Hilltop. Third Way Café is part of the brand portfolio of CleanTurn Enterprises. Other brands include CleanTurn Demolition Services, She Has a Name Cleaning Services and Passion Purpose Profit. All three provide work for the previously incarcerated or survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence. President and CEO John Rush wanted to add Third Way Café because of its potential impact on the community, though he realizes it won't add many jobs. Rush, who lives on the West Side, chose the concept and location because he felt there were no community centers nearby except for Four Strings Brewing Co. “I love the Hilltop—it's so diverse,” he says. “But there wasn't a space that would encourage, promote bringing that diversity together.” While books are a big focus of the café—an entire room is filled with piles that still need to be shelved—its primary purpose is to be a community center. “It will be an awareness-creator, and it will be a community-builder,” Rush says. “The goal is to bring folks in. … There's going to be people who have opinions on a wide spectrum, so I wanted to have a space where we could get people from both ends of the spectrum in a room, remove all sharp objects, where we could have a legitimate conversation. We may not necessarily arrive anywhere, but at least there will perhaps be a better understanding of where the other person is coming from.”
Rush believes that the mere presence of real books on a shelf promotes the need to have convictions, to hold a position. He has basically hand-chosen his entire library of books for sale, purchasing most of the volumes (focusing on classical literature, theater and poetry) from Karen Wickliff Books in Clintonville and Grandview's Acorn Bookshop, which closed in 2017 after 25 years. “The world of technology and Amazon is a competitor in a space like ours,” he says. “That's where I think you kind of have to create something that's a little more than just a bookstore.”
The space is coming together. It has a coffee counter with local beans from Stauf's Coffee Roasters, One Line Coffee and more. For a $2 cover charge, a visitor can drink unlimited cups. Tables are clustered near the front by a makeshift stage for musicians and speakers. A bookshelf separates the front area from the back. It holds books and board games. Nearby is a loveseat for gamers to sit on while they play a vintage Atari console. Two small side rooms will be used for quiet reading spaces. The back room is crammed with books in teetering stacks and spilling into disheveled piles. Once the books are organized and shelved, they will surround a conference table that can be rented for $25 an hour—an offering that Rush says has been surprisingly popular. He recently decided to raise the fee by $5, and it hasn't fazed anyone.
Still, it's a mistake to think that, just because indie bookstores are enjoying a bit of a revival, it is easy to keep one afloat. “It remains a fiercely, fiercely competitive, tough business,” says Teicher. “The competition remains massive. I wouldn't want to mislead … into thinking there is some kind of easy street here.”
Unlike Kass, Rush didn't do any research before choosing to open Third Way. He just wanted to. “This is my living room. If I wanted to share my living room with everyone, this is it. Here it is,” he says. “Nothing I've ever done I've ever known [if it will be successful],” he adds. “I don't want [Third Way] to be a drain, but I'm not interested in simply creating something that will make a ton of money. That's too simple and boring for me.”
That attitude embodies the third wave of retail. “No one's getting rich doing this,” says Teicher. Money isn't the point. “The margins remain thin, but there is a formula to earn a living, support a family, support some employees and make a really strong, important contribution to the community/neighborhood in which these stores are located, to make them better places to live.” The ideology is different in the third wave—it has more to do with meaning than money. Rather than churning out unoriginal, revenue-generating locations, there is a priority placed on the authenticity of the space, and the way it interacts with the community.
“Bookstores become a really important part of the fabric of the communities in which they are located,” says Teicher. “I think the models in Columbus would be pretty good examples of that.”
Chloe Teasley is staff writer.