Report from Louisiana: Are Indie Booksellers Coming Back?

Posted: February 12, 2018 by Pat Austin in Uncategorized

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT — Cottonwood Books in Baton Rouge is a small, independent bookseller that has figured out how to survive against the big chain stores and the internet, both of which nibble away at their sales.  This article in the LSU Daily Reveille focuses on how the bookshop is thriving and I am envious.

I always wanted a shop just like  J. Michael Kinny’s place in Natchitoches, Louisiana: The Book Merchant.  It was on Front Street and had a large display window facing the street which looked out on Cane River. The deep window was always filled with attractive displays of books, a sprinkling of antique items, and a fluffy cat sleeping in the sun.  Sadly, the shop closed in 2012. It broke my heart.

The shop was exactly like the one I always dreamed I would have; there were inviting comfortable couches and chairs throughout, attractive displays of books on fine oak tables, warm lamps pooling light onto the gleaming hardwood floors, local art on the walls, and two cats.  J. Michael was always friendly and hospitable; I never went into the shop that he didn’t have a recommendation for me of some local author or book of local interest.

And that’s how Cottonwood Books is surviving – they have a niche.  Their niche is first-editions and hard to find books.  They, too, have a knowledgeable proprietor to help and engage you. It’s working: they’ve been open over 30 years.

In Shreveport we don’t have any independent booksellers that I am aware of.  We do have D&B Russell on King Highway which offers unique used books and they have a great Louisiana section.  Their little corner in King’s Ransom Antique Mall is always inviting with chairs to sit in and stacks of intriguing books. It’s very quiet and I’ve found some real treasures in there.

The struggle for indie booksellers is real: there is the obvious problem of the internet making books instantly accessible but booksellers also have to deal with rising rent costs and the rising costs to retain employees.  But perhaps there is hope for them.  Discount chains like Barnes & Noble are now struggling to remain relevant against even cheaper prices on Amazon. In our local Barnes & Noble I see as many Funko Pop toys and Legos as I do books.

Perhaps a renaissance for indie books is on the horizon.  Betsy Burton of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake thinks so:

In fact, Burton said independent bookstores are experiencing a renaissance as large chains such as Barnes and Noble struggle against Amazon’s cheap prices and instant gratification. “People actually like to go browse and turn the pages,” Burton said. So, as the chains flounder (with ones such as Borders going under), those who prefer “being able to physically shop” are coming to the independent stores.

She’s not the only one seeing a revival:

But then the saga of the independent bookstore underwent a major plot twist: The customers came back. Between 2009 and 2015, independent booksellers across America grew by an astounding 35 percent, from 1,651 stores to 2,227, ABA figures show. And the upsurge shows no sign of slowing.

There is truth in this.  I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to utilizing Amazon, but there are some books I want to be able to hold in my hand, to smell the ink, the age, to feel the paper…I want to be able to flip through them and I want to be able to look at them on my shelf.  I want to save them and to treasure them.  I have first editions of Lyle Saxon’s books which are one of the first things I’d grab if my house caught on fire. I have an antique, 8-volume, leather bound set of Samuel Pepy’s diary.  I have a tiny red book of Evangeline inscribe on the inside by a Confederate soldier to his lady love, Elizabeth. There’s nothing on Amazon like that.

These are volumes that make one’s heart skip and causes the spirit to soar.

There is no greater joy to me than to be able to spend hours browsing shelves like those in J. Michael Kinny’s shop, getting lost in the books of local history and genealogy.  There are Holy Grail books out there somewhere that I must find: I’d love to find a first edition of Caroline Dormon’s Wildflowers of Louisiana.  At D & B Russell’s shop one time I found a book by Harnett Kane inscribed to Cammie Henry, Jr.  Fate!  I grabbed it and did not let go.

And yes, I’m speaking of second-hand books here, but if an indie is to survive I think they have to find a niche as Cottonwood has done and offer secondhand books, first-editions, local writers, something.  If, as an indie, all you offer is current bestsellers, you will die.

I really miss the independent bookshops.  I’m not sure if I could ever pull it off but if all the stars line up someday maybe I’ll just do it.  I’d try to locate it near a craft brewery so you can buy a book and go have a beer and read it. That way you can support two local businesses (and who wouldn’t want to be next to a craft beer place?!)  I’ll hang twinkly lights like Meg Ryan did in You’ve Got Mail;  I’ll design inviting window displays and I’ll have some shop cats.  There will be local art for sale and maybe homemade baked treats.  A few very unique antiques.  Overstuffed couches and warm rugs on the floors. You will come shop there and you’ll find something that makes your heart skip a beat.

It will be fabulous!

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.

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