NEW YORK — Near the end of 2021, Jessica Callahan was living in Columbus, Ohio, working as a social science researcher and wondering if there was a better way to support herself. Her friends Julie Ross and Austin Carter had similar thoughts and a similar solution: Open a bookstore.
“I think a lot of people re-evaluated what was important to them during the lockdown and we realized the place we were always happy to be at was a bookstore,” says the 30-year-old Callahan, who with Ross and Carter last year founded the Pocket Books Shop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, close to Carter’s hometown. The roughly 1,000-square foot store is located on the main floor of a Queen Anne style house where Callahan and Ross live upstairs.
“We looked at our lives and thought, ‘Why not?’ Nothing else felt guaranteed anymore so why not just try to be happy," she added. “We're not getting rich from this, but we're able to pay our bills and pay ourselves.”
The new direction of the Pocket Books owners helped lead to another year of growth for independent sellers, with membership in the American Booksellers Association reaching its highest levels in more than 20 years. The ABA added 173 members last year, and now has 2,185 bookstore businesses and 2,599 locations. Three years after the pandemic shut down most of the physical bookstores in the U.S. and the independent community feared hundreds might close permanently, the ABA has nearly 300 more members (under stricter rules for membership) than it did in 2019, the last full year before the spread of COVID-19.
“It speaks to a sea change coming out of the pandemic,” says Allison Hill, CEO of the trade association, citing an overall rise in book sales as people spent more time at home.
One longtime ABA member, Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables and other Florida locations, says business has been strong the past couple of years and the customers have been younger, in their teens and 20s. Some are seeking books by Colleen Hoover, Emily Henry and others popular on TikTok, but many are anxious to buy other works.
“I feel like young people are re-discovering the bookstore and the importance of community after being locked down,” he says. “And you’re seeing interest across the board. The other day I had a young person come in who was interested in short stories and wanted to buy a book of Chekhov.”
The ABA also continued its recent trend of not just adding stores, but more diverse stores, whether the kinds of operations or who runs them. Independent stores these days range from longtime traditional sellers such as Books & Books to pop-up stores, mobile shops and one that began as an online store and Instagram account, Black Walnut Books, in Glen Falls, New York.
Once overwhelmingly white, the booksellers association added 46 stores last year that reported diverse ownership, among them Rooted MKE in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Black Garnet Books, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hillary Smith, owner of Black Walnut Books, is a member of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians who is focused on queer and Indigenous titles and works by authors of color.
“I am a mission-based bookseller,” she says.
Another new store owner, Heather Hall of Greenfeather Book Company in Norman, Oklahoma, also sees her job as a calling. Before the pandemic, she had planned to work in the legal profession, but found herself thinking of other possible careers and was surprised to realize that she had the financial resources and enough of a potential local market to go into bookselling — a seemingly distant dream.
Hall is a self-described “loud mouth” who soon became active in countering the state's book bannings. After a Norman high school teacher was criticized (and eventually resigned) for sharing the QR code to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned Project — an initiative to enable students nationwide to access books banned in their communities — Hall decided to give away T-shirts with the library's code.
“Being loud and obnoxious is a normal part of my life," she says with a laugh. “I am 100% in with the ability to have a conversation about every aspect of books. I'm not talking from an ivory tower perspective. It can be romance novels, science fiction, genre fiction. I'm talking about graphic novels. These conversations are the things in my life that make it better and happier and more wonderful.”
Hill says sales appear “softer” in 2023 than in the last couple of years, but still anticipates further growth for the trade association, with 56 member stores added so far and 18 closing.
Prospective owners include 32-year-old Paullina Mills of Perry, Iowa, who had worked in education for the past decade until recent state legislation — including proposed restrictions on what books can be taught — made her consider a new path. This summer, she plans to open Century Farm Books & Brews, and have it live up to its name as a gathering place for drinks and books and bookish conversations.
“I wanted a place where people would come and get a glass of wine and maybe have a book club,” she says. “I think in general we have missed personal connections (during the pandemic) and this seems like a great way to fill a hole in our community. It seemed like a pipe dream at first, but then I found a building and it was like, ‘OK, I'm going to jump in headfirst and see how it goes.”