After the advent of big box store booksellers and online retail giants, small independent bookstores learned to survive – not by selling you the book you wanted, but selling you the book you didn’t know you wanted.
During a weekday, lunchtime drop-in at Joseph Fox Booksellers in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, a staff member literally jumped out of her chair to show a customer a book he had never heard of. Sometimes costumers are sent out to competing stores if the right book is not on the shelf.
“We all in the same business of showing people books they may not be deliberately looking for, but as you browse around the store you see beautiful, unusual books you may not have thought of, to open your horizons,” said Judy Fox, co-owner of the 66-year-old family business. “We’re all trying to do the same thing, so we’re working together to do it.”
That sense of business camaraderie will be codified this Saturday during Independent Bookstore Day — a national, 4-year-old movement to promote neighborhood bookstores. Fifteen booksellers in the region have banded together to cross-promote one another. Participants can get a map to all the stores – ranging from New Hope to Doylestown to Exton to downtown Philadelphia — and encouraged to visit as many as possible in one day.
It won’t be easy. Moving between the 15 bookstores requires driving hundreds of miles. The easternmost store — Farley’s Bookshop, in New Hope, Pa. — is 60 miles from the westernmost store — Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, Pa.
Joseph Fox Bookshop (1724 Sansom Street)
Head House Books (619 South Street)
Penn Book Center (130 S 34th Street)
Open Book Bookstore (7900 High School Road, Elkins Park)
Spiral Bookcase (112 Cotton Street, Manayunk)
Big Blue Marble (551 Carpenter Lane, Mt. Airy)
Booktender’s Secret Garden (42 E State Street, Doylestown)
Doylestown Bookshop (16 S Main Street, Doylestown)
Farley’s Bookshop (44 S Main Street, New Hope)
Newtown Bookshop (2835 S Eagle Road, Newtown)
Children’s Book World (17 Haverford Road, Haverford)
Main Point Books (116 N Wayne Avenue, Wayne)
Narberth Bookshop (221 Haverford Ave, Narberth)
Towne Book Center (220 Plaza Drive, Collegeville)
Wellington Square Bookshop (549 Welligton Square, Exton)
Like a scavenger hunt, each store will stamp the map. More stamps mean more chances to win prizes, like hardback copies of books signed by the authors. Players who visit all the stores are eligible for the grand prize – a one-on-one lunch with a selected local author.
The bookseller group, called the Independent Bookstores of Southeast Pennsylvania, is spearheaded in part by a relative newcomer to retail, Lynn Rosen (who admits the group’s name is a bit clunky). After working for many years in the publishing industry, she opened Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park two years ago.
“I was so struck by how supportive booksellers are of each other. I’ve never experienced that in any other work that I’ve done,” said Rosen. “I was meeting other booksellers who would say, ‘Hey, we did this program. It worked really well for us. Let me tell you how we did it so you can try it, too.’ I thought, ‘Wow, how can this be happening?'”
The scavenger hunt is inspired by a similar collaboration in Seattle, where customers are encouraged to visit 17 independent booksellers, including one across the Puget Sound accessible only by ferry.
One indicator of that event’s success is the fact that some intrepid bookworms — using boats, bikes, and cars — are able to bag all the bookstores in a single day.
It may also be an indicator of the growing success of the brick-and-mortar bookselling business. Industry trends show an uptick in the number of new bookstores opening nationwide.
“The tide is shifting a little bit. People are starting to realize what they’ve lost with the predominance of these uniform, big box stores,” said Rosen. “There’s a personal touch. We get to know you. People come in and talk. A lot of what we do is not just selling books but conversation around books that we’re providing.”
Independent Bookstore Day is not just about the hunt. Most stores have in-house incentives to entice, like signed books, giveaways, and, of course, food, because “eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably,” as C.S. Lewis once wrote.
As Rosen puts it, perhaps more succinctly, “Of course you have to have snacks.”