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Bookstores bind patrons as well as their owners

Across the country, women who operate independent establishments nurture the communities they serve. The same is true for the fierce connections they’ve forged with each other.

In 2016, the American author and activist Gloria Steinem briefly met independent bookstore owner Suzanne Lucey during a book signing at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Steinem questioned Lucey about the name for her bookstore, Page 158 Books. Lucey is often asked about this and was ready with a response. Her reply, “It’s my IQ,” elicited a hearty laugh from Steinem.

Page 158 Books’ name is actually based on the store’s original address in Wake Forest, North Carolina, just outside the state’s capital. Although the shop has since moved a block away, Lucey kept the name. It’s become a part of the shop’s personality. “It’s really worked out well for us,” Lucey said. “We have all the authors sign ‘page 158’ (as their book autograph). We always get a reaction, and people always remember us.”

Lucey is part of a private Facebook page called Indie Booksellers, a group started in 2017 by Nicole Sullivan, owner of BookBar in Denver, Colorado, and Noëlle Santos, owner of The Lit. Bar in the Bronx, New York City. There are more than 2,2501,800 members — about three-quarters are women who work at or own a bookstore — according to Sullivan. Members ask questions about how to open a bookstore, hire staff, or what price was paid for a specific book. Some post images of attractive book displays, vent about difficult customers or the arrival of a box of damaged books. 

The number of independent bookstores owned by women is unknown. But one thing is certain, from coast-to-coast, these booksellers are invested in supporting and educating each other about the business of selling books, and have a shared mission to be beacons in their communities.

VaLinda Miller opened Turning Page Bookshop Goose Creek, S.C. in 2019. She wants every neighborhood to have an independent bookstore where people can meet old and new friends. Photo Credit: Lionel Miller and Charlie Burns

Lucey, Sullivan, and VaLinda Miller are also members of the American Booksellers Association. According to the latest data released by the not-for-profit trade organization in 2021, there are 1,700 ABA member stores operating in more than 2,100 locations. The ABA plans to widen the scope of information collected about each member store and capture how many independent bookstores are owned by women, especially Black, Indigenous and other women  of color.

Miller participates in Indie Booksellers, too. For her, the journey to bookstore ownership hasn’t been easy. Miller opened a bookstore in 2014 in a predominantly white community in Seneca, South Carolina, a rural part of the state. She closed the store after four years, due to poor sales, which she attributes to not being accepted by residents. Among other things, Miller overheard customers ask employees, “Does she know what she’s doing?” A year after closing her first store, in 2019 she started Turning Page Bookshop in Goose Creek, South Carolina, 30 minutes north of Charleston.

“It might have been a nightmare those four years, but it was the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life,” said Miller, who also works full-time processing payroll for the federal government. “I learned how to run a business. I learned how to deal with different types of customers. I learned a lot, and it turned out to be a blessing.”

She said her experience in Goose Creek is dramatically different, despite still being in a predominantly white community. She has support from the local government, police department, and neighborhoods. The mayor even announced the arrival of the bookstore on the city’s social media page.

In this February 2020 photo, Page 158 Books, an independent bookstore in Wake Forest, N.C., hosts Mary Kubica, author of “The Other Mrs.,” for an event. Photo Credit: David Lucey

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Turning Page offered a regular schedule of events featuring music, poetry, and wine. Miller invited teenagers for pizza and a place to hang out. She has tied the bookstore to the community by partnering with the local recreation center, and sponsoring activities for Take Your Child to Work Day. The staff also helps seniors complete government forms and use the computer. 

Miller believes the future is bright for indie bookstores. “I want people to stop (thinking) bookstores are closed because there is Amazon,” she said. “Amazon can’t talk to you. Amazon can’t give you a glass of wine. Amazon can ship you a glass of wine, a house, and a car but Amazon can’t give you that human connection and they never will.”

In 2013, Nicole Sullivan launched BookBar in Berkeley, a neighborhood 3 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado. She calls it a highly curated bookstore for literary fiction, nonfiction, and high-quality children’s books. A wine bar is incorporated into the store and serves beverages from family-owned vineyards and Colorado breweries. Successful bookstores, Sullivan said, became the gathering place and community anchor, something necessary amid the current climate of the world.

Like Noëlle Santos in New York City, Sullivan recognized the unique challenges of running an indie bookstore and saw the value of sharing information on an online platform. 

“Booksellers are also very unusual in that we are more open to sharing ideas and solutions than any other industry I’ve encountered,” Sullivan explained. “I think that is largely because it is comprised mostly of women who tend to seek out other women for problem-solving and sometimes just for commiseration.”

But as the industry endures a dramatic shift, independent booksellers fight to maintain an intricate role within communities across the nation. 

“There are thousands of us across the U.S. who are all doing our part in our own ways to increase literacy in our communities and stake a claim in a world dominated by big box and online booksellers,” Sullivan said. “We’ve come together as underdogs, realizing that there is strength in numbers.”

Edited by: Narrative Assigning Editor, A.R. Shaw

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