return of the indies

a visit to providence’s books on the square

As a bookworm growing up in Evanston, Illinois, my favorite store to visit was an obscure hole-in-the-wall called Bookman’s Alley. True to its name, it was located in an alleyway between Panera Bread and Saville Flowers. You had to follow the creaking wooden sign with a hand pointing down the alleyway to reach the entrance.

Inside were thousands of old books, red velvet chairs, and display cases with Civil War uniforms and model ships. The owner, Roger Carlson, always sat behind the front desk with a book or magazine in his hands. I usually nodded hello, politely declined a bowl of dusty gumdrops, and then disappeared within the labyrinth of bookshelves. Most of the books were old and used, so it was fun to take out the volumes one by one to read the personal notes scrawled on the inside covers. “To Mary—Merry Christmas—Love, Santa. 1860.” “Happy Birthday, Roger.” “I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.”

Then, in 2013, Bookman’s Alley closed after 33 years of business. Roger Carlson cited not only his age but also competition from online booksellers as the reasons for the store’s closing. Unfortunately, the store’s demise was part of a decades-long national trend of small book businesses closing in the face of competition from Amazon. As New York Times writer Francis X. Clines put it, independent bookstores suffered from “decades of trauma” as a result of “damage from bargain megastores, the ascension of the e-book and Amazon’s flash delivery of cut-rate reading.”

Yet in recent years, independent bookstores have shown signs of coming back. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores increased by 27 percent between 2009 and 2014. Surprisingly, an article from NPR claims that part of this revival comes from an increase in the stores’ popularity among younger people who have been brought up in the digital age.

To find out more about independent bookstores in Providence, I spoke with Jennifer Kandarian, the manager of Books on the Square. I took a simple and pleasant walk east on Angell Street to reach the local indie’s green awnings in Wayland Square—an easy voyage for any Brown student. It’s a well-lit store with a cozy red carpet, friendly shopkeepers, and colorful shelves that extend much farther back than the relatively small entrance would suggest.

Kandarian told me a familiar story: Books on the Square experienced a decline in sales for many years. The original owners “gave up on it” in 2007 and put it up for sale. But unlike many other indies, Books on the Square was bought by a local family and managed to stay afloat.

Part of the reason for the store’s revival was the neighborhood’s support. Most independent bookstores that have managed to stay afloat have done so because they have a loyal base of local customers. “We have people we see every other day,” said Kandarian. The store hosts story times, book clubs, and neighborhood association meetings. There is also a dog park forming near Waterman Street, and participants have meetings in the store.

“With their dogs?” I asked.

Nope, not with their dogs, but the owners can use Books on the Square as a meeting place. “For us, it’s all about being part of the neighborhood,” Kandarian said.

This idea of “neighborliness” contrasts sharply with the atmosphere of bargain megastores. “If you go into a chain,” Kandarian said, “you might as well do self-checkout.” She thinks this is part of the reason the indies have been making a comeback. At first, she explained, people were enamored with the ability to buy all their books, CDs, and magazines in the same large chain, but eventually they missed the intimacy of the independent bookstores.

There’s a certain level of warmth and care you can find at an independent bookstore that is absent at chains. Booksellers are fellow readers who can offer advice to a customer wondering what to read next or what to buy for a nephew. Kandarian explained that many independent bookstores like Books on the Square place what are called “shelf talkers” among the books. Booksellers write these small blurbs to recommend their favorite new reads. These “shelf talkers” can inspire shoppers to approach the people who work at the bookstore and ask for more details about a specific book they read.

For example, Kandarian said, she recently fell in love with a little-known book called “Did You Ever Have a Family?” by first-time author Bill Clegg. It begins with a tragedy where, she said, “Everybody’s dead.” The book can be a tough sell for people who are looking for lighter fare. But Kandarian explained, “It’s such a good book. The writing is just so amazing that my little shelf talker isn’t adequate to explain it.” Still, if people see that Kandarian wrote a shelf talker, she can speak with them further about the book and convince them that the tragedy is worth their time. “The book is more about the transition, and just about figuring out who you are,” she said.

Kandarian also explained the bookselling process to me. There are the obvious daily tasks, like helping customers find what they want and setting up seasonal displays. The children’s and adults’ buyers order books in their respective categories and make recommendations for future purchases.

Working at an independent bookstore allows for more autonomy than working for a larger chain like Barnes and Noble. “We work for a person,” not a corporation, Kandarian said. “We’re here because we want to be. Everyone here has a say in what we carry and about the displays.” The workers can simply decide to put up a display in the shop without having to obtain the approval of a corporation.

Booksellers also receive advance reading copies of books about six months before they are published. It is the booksellers’ job to read these books so that, if they like them, they can recommend them to the public.

As far as choosing which books and how many copies to order, Kandarian says, “It’s really difficult.” If there’s a particular author who always sells well, the bookstore workers can refer back to the last book’s sales from that author and order the corresponding number of books for their shelves. As for less famous authors, the judgments on the number of copies to order are more difficult. Booksellers read the book’s description and consider their store’s audience.

“Do I think people who come in here, who come to this bookstore, will want this? Yes or no?” said Kandarian. For authors like David Sedaris, the answer is a resounding yes: Each time he releases a new book, Books on the Square sells about 150 copies. On the other hand, books by Republican authors like Bill O’Reilly are not so popular in the area. “We generally sell one,” said Kandarian.

I asked whether booksellers pay a lot of attention to a book’s cover. After all, as much as I hate to admit it, I tend to partly judge a book I am going to read by its cover. “To tell you the truth,” said Kandarian, “if something’s terrible… it’s because the company didn’t want to put the money into it.” Great books and great authors tend to be assigned to great graphic designers, she said. For example, the graphic designer Chip Kidd, a famous figure in the publishing world, always does the hardcover designs of Haruki Murakami’s books. The quality of the book cover can often reveal the quality of the writing behind it.

At the end of our conversation, Kandarian directed me to the American Booksellers’ Association website, an organization encompassing nearly 2000 independent bookstores across the country. The site contains a helpful “Find Independent Bookstores” page so you can locate one wherever you are.

As an independent bookstore, Books on the Square is a strong supporter of “shop local” initiatives. “Amazon doesn’t pay taxes. We pay taxes,” said Kandarian. Shopping at a bookstore is rather like shopping at a farmer’s market: You keep the money local. An infographic from the Huffington Post explains that spending $100 locally will put $68 back into the local economy; that number goes down to $48 when you shop at a big-box retailer. Buying locally is also more environmentally friendly because it involves less transportation. And of course, there’s the pure pleasure of walking into an independently owned store that reflects the personality of the booksellers and not a large corporation, whether it be Books on the Square or Bookman’s Alley with its dusty gumdrops. “People have realized that if they don’t support local businesses, they go away,” said Kandarian. “And then when you do want them, they’re not there.”