Regular customer David Yades talks to his daughter, Izzy, 11, after buying a vintage copy of Audubon's Birds of America at Bookbound, a new independent bookstore in Ann Arbor. (Mark Bialek / Special to The Detroit News)
Peter Blackshear is helping write a new sequel for Michigan’s bookstore scene.
The former bargain book buyer for Borders now owns the thriving Bookbound, a 2,000-square-foot independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, which is exactly the kind of business the former retail giant devoured before it went bankrupt and closed in 2011.
Open just a few months, Bookbound is part of a growing trend of independent bookstores experiencing a renaissance even as Barnes & Noble and Amazon remain.
Blackshear’s shop is one of three independent stores in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area to open in 2013, along with Literati Bookstore and Black Stone Bookstore & Cultural Center. It’s a trend that filters out throughout Michigan and the nation.
“There is definitely a resurgence going on,” said Deborah Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association.
She points to the American Booksellers Association, which like her group represents independent bookstores but nationwide. Its membership has grown to 2,022, a 6.4 percent increase in 2013, up from its low of 1,600 in 2008. Sales were up 8 percent in 2012, and those gains remain in 2013.
“What’s really telling to me is that when bookstore owners are retiring, they are finding buyers for the stores,” she said. “That didn’t happen a few years ago. Those people retiring couldn’t sell their businesses and had to close.”
Blackshear opened up shop just six miles from Borders’ former headquarters, where he worked for 20 years.
“Business is better than I thought it would be, but Ann Arbor is pretty special,” he said.
Bookbound, which Blackshear and his wife, Megan, own, is a hybrid bookstore.
Not only does it contain the latest best-sellers, but used books and bargain books as well. They are the discounted tomes similar to those found near the checkout lanes at Borders, which Blackshear bought for the chain. They are quickly becoming the most popular part of his inventory.
“Most people are pleasantly surprised at checkout at the low cost,” he said.
More than just a bookstore
But Blackshear believes shoppers return for more than a discount. It’s the human interaction they don’t find when clicking on Amazon, which provides the majority of the nation’s books.
“The conversations we have in here are a reward,” Blackshear said.
Bookbound has become a city center of sorts, where neighbors interact, often extending their evenings after dinner at nearby restaurants.
“We host an open mic night and share readings from a featured author and inevitably everyone starts talking with each other,” he explained.
Voracious reader Nancy Short, 32, of East Lansing, has found a new best friend in Petoskey. McLean & Eakin Booksellers is her must-stop shop each time she visits the area, spending nearly 90 minutes there each trip.
“They have the most thoughtful collection of books and they’re displayed in a way that makes them so appealing — especially the staff picks, which have hand-written signs pointing them out,” Short said.
“I always spend way too much when I go, but I know it’s OK because it’s a local store and I enjoy buying local because it helps the entire community.”
The “buy local” movement is one of the factors fueling the independent bookstore resurgence, said Oren Teicher, chief executive officer of the ABA.
“After Borders closed, consumers realized if they don’t shop there, their favorite independent store might go away, too,” he explained.
Teicher also believes independents have embraced technology more and use it to improve their bottom line.
McLean & Eakin co-owner Matthew Norcross agrees. Earnings at his 5,000-square-shop increased by double digits last year, with sales the highest they’ve ever been in the history of the 20-year shop, he said.
“Our website is getting more attention,” Norcross said, partly because his wife and co-owner, Jessilynn, sends an email to 5,000 customers each Monday, which draws them there.
That email generates 20-30 orders each week, he said, orders they wouldn’t have gotten without the email reminding their presence in the summer resort town.
To stay connected to the customers they won over during the warm months — their peak season — McLean & Eakin has adopted a 99-cent shipping program to compete with Amazon.
“We started it on a lark in 2011, and we only got two or three orders at first,” he said. “Word spread and now we are actually making money from it.”
Norcross also sells electronic books online because he is well versed in his customers’ needs. According to reader surveys done by Codex Group, 64 percent of U.S. book buyers prefer reading in both print and digital.
Responding to challenges
Not every independent is experiencing such success, however. A few, near larger cities, have hit some road bumps.
Schuler Books closed its downtown Grand Rapids location, consolidating its business. It still operates two in the Grand Rapids area and two in greater Lansing.
Book Beat co-owner Cary Loren said sales are flat at his 31-year-old Oak Park business. He had a disappointing holiday, hurt by the weather, the quirkiness of Hanukkah and Christmas being spaced far apart, and the shortened shopping period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he said.
“I think this Detroit bankruptcy has a lot of people depressed and the uncertainty of the economy still has an impact on sales.” Loren said. “Detroit is in a unique situation.”
Steady, but slowly, those customers impacted by Detroit’s economy are coming back to the Books Connection in Shelby Township, said owner Toni Brady. She has watched five similar bookstores close around her in the 14 years she’s owned the 32-year-old store.
She’s had to be creative in encouraging their return, however. She now rents the latest best sellers for $4.95.
“I have some big readers who used to buy only new, but when they cut back, they headed to the library,” she said. “They don’t like being 112th on the list to read a new release, though, so they can come here and get it right away as a rental.”
Entrepreneurialism, like Brady’s, is another reason for this renaissance, Teicher said.
“Independent books stores in Michigan are succeeding because they reflect their community,” Teicher said.
Renee Wisely is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.