Since setting up shop in a vintage camper trailer in April 2015, the owners of Itinerant Literate Books have parked their mobile store at block parties, breweries and coffee shops around the Charleston area — anywhere they can attract a curious passerby.
"I’m always surprised by people who want to talk the nuts and bolts and economics of bookselling," said Christen Thompson Lain, co-owner. "They don’t just ask, ‘Where do you get your books?’"
The customers' curiosity might mask a deeper question about why anyone would open a bookstore these days. Amazon, it's widely understood, decimated the bookselling business first before setting its sights on retail in general.
The hard times keep coming for some bookstores. Years after bookselling chains like Borders went belly-up, the once-venerable Barnes & Noble saw its stock price plummet to the lowest level since the mid-1990s this month, the bad news nipping at the heels of the holiday shopping season.
And yet some smaller, independent booksellers have survived and even thrived. According to the American Booksellers Association, a White Plains, N.Y.-based trade group, the number of independent booksellers grew 35 percent between 2009 and 2015, to 2,337 stores from 1,651.
Harvard Business School researcher Ryan Raffaelli studied the counterintuitive trend and found in a November report that local bookstores had reinvented themselves by curating a smaller and more specialized inventory, hosting special events, and stressing a community-first approach.
"Independent booksellers were some of the first to champion the idea of localism," he wrote.
The Itinerant Literate checks all the boxes in Raffaelli's analysis. The inventory is, by necessity, tiny and constantly changing. The business model is 100 percent event-based, as the store only opens during events. And rather than fight a losing battle with e-commerce for pricing and convenience, co-owners Lain and Julia Turner seek to make their shop welcoming and unique — a quirky, distinctly local place.
Newcomers like Lain and Turner are taking a page from the playbooks of industry veterans like Jonathan Sanchez, owner of Blue Bicycle Books on upper King Street in downtown Charleston. The shop opened in 1995 as Boomer's Books, named after the previous owners' basset hound; Sanchez changed the name when he bought the store in 2007.
Eleven years in, Sanchez has tweaked the old used book store's business model, successfully outlasting other King Street retailers through the depths of the Great Recession. He dedicated the front of the store to new books, focusing on local titles and "more hipster books" — Dave Eggers novels were an early success, he says, while few if any customers come in seeking John Grisham's latest bestseller.
"Retail is weird," Sanchez said. "If people are going to shop in person for something, it's for the experience of shopping."
The other big change under his watch: The store hosts events all year long, including 191 authors in 2017 by Sanchez's count.
Starting with a handful of in-store book signings, Blue Bicycle now hosts blockbuster events like Facebook senior executive Sheryl Sandberg's talk at the nearby Charleston Music Hall in May. The biggest draw is YALLFest, a two-day young-adult book festival that brings crowds of thousands to meet their favorite authors.
Elsewhere, two of the newer bookstores in the Upstate cater in part to a distinct genre of regional literary fiction — the dark, gritty Appalachian tales of authors like Ron Rash, Wiley Cash and Amy Greene. Some call it "grit lit;" others just call it local.
The Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg opened in June 2010, operating out of a former Masonic temple in a downtown district undergoing a retail renaissance. The storefront acts as an arm of the Hub City Writers Project, a nonprofit organization that hosts writer residencies and publishes its own books. Profits from the store support the nonprofit's mission.
The store itself has become a hub for Southern literati — John T. Edge will be there promoting a new paperback edition of The Potlikker Papers Feb. 11 — and store manager Anne Waters sees that as a vital part of its success.
"People still read. It’s very heartening. They like hobnobbing with writers, and they like discussing books. I don’t want to get political about it, but it is interesting, people are seeking ideas," Waters said. "We do sell John Grisham, of course we do, but that’s not what goes flying out of here."
'Return to experience'
In Greenville, M. Judson Booksellers opened in July 2015 in the stately old courthouse building on bustling Main Street.
"For us, it had to be downtown," said founding partner Ashley Warlick.
Like Hub City, M. Judson does a healthy business in regional fiction and mountain noir, devoting an entire wall to South Carolina and regional authors. Other specialties include high-end cookbooks and illustrated children's books.
The store features a grand staircase out front and a bakeshop inside selling cupcakes and coffee. In addition to steady foot traffic, the store caters to its regulars with four to six distinct book clubs every season, including the ever-popular Southern Lit club.
Another event is the monthly Sit-Down Supper, which features an author and a local chef serving a menu designed around that author's work. The first dinner featured Chef Teryi Youngblood and the wife of Pat Conroy, the late patriarch of South Carolina novelists.
"It's kind of interpretive dance. It's really fun," Warlick said.
Warlick sells books, yes, but she also tries to provide what Amazon never can.
"One of the things helping booksellers is the idea of the return to the experience," Warlick said. "The experience of shopping in a strip mall is something we grew up with that we don’t have the same romantic ideas about as coming up a beautiful staircase into a building and touching beautiful books."