Indie Bookstores Thriving in the Amazon Age

Focusing on community engagement

Evan Smith
July 17, 2019 - 11:21 am

On a warm July evening, as the bargains of Amazon Prime Day 2019 were winding down, a small crowd had gathered inside M Judson Books in downtown Greenville to hear the authors David Joy and Ace Atkins talk shop.

“I’m happy for the beer,” Atkins said, toasting the crowd. “We need booze at all our events. Makes us a whole lot more interesting.”

Each of the beer tastings, being passed around in cups to the audience and the authors, had been chosen deliberately to match the tones and flavor profiles of the books being discussed. Given that Atkins and Joy are known for their gritty, often exceedingly violent books set in the rural South, the flavor profile of the beer was thick, dark and heavy on the southern influence.

Evan Smith

“Book and a Beer,” as the monthly event is known, is just one of the many events that are held year-round amid the quiet shelves at M Judson, a bookstore whose success would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago. As Amazon’s reign only continues to grow, and with rival booksellers like Borders now closed down and Barnes & Noble rapidly shuttering stores after having been sold to a hedge fund, independent bookstores have seen an unlikely resurgence as of late.

Since 2009, the number of independent bookstores in the United States has more than doubled, from 1,651 locations a decade ago to 2,470 locations today, according to the American Booksellers Association

E-books, once seen as the death knell for traditional brick and mortar bookshops, have been on the decline for three years in a row now, with sales falling 3.6 percent last year alone. At the same time, hardback book sales rose nearly 7 percent last year, with soft back book sales increasing by about 1.1 percent. 

Independent bookstores have ridden that upward trajectory, with a focus on community engagement at the heart of that success.

“What we want to do is make this a community hub,” said Debi Horton, who manages events at M Judson. “All I do is one hundred percent events, so I want to make sure that when authors come here, they feel comfortable, and that way we can present them to the public in a different, unique way. A little more casual, a little more fun.”

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In the past few years, a wide range of celebrated writers have made pit stops at M Judson, including Brian Panowich, Patti Callahan, Jessica Handler, the late Pat Conroy, George Singleton, Lauren Groff, and Jacqueline Woodson, to name a few.

When they come to M Judson, they all sit much like Atkins and Joy were seated at the most recent Book and a Beer event — which is to say, seated casually in the store’s cafe area, no more than three feet away from the crowd. That intimacy, according to M Judson’s book buyer Ashley Warlick, allows them to create a new relationship between readers and authors.

“When you get to talk to the authors in question up close, and see where their stories come from, it’s really exciting,” Warlick said. “And it also binds you to the book in a really special way. You can’t get that anywhere else, except live and in-person in your community.”

If Amazon has an algorithm for curating books to sell, M Judson has Warlick. As the store’s buyer, she makes the decisions for what goes on the shelves. A writer herself, Warlick knows many of the authors of the books for sale, and according to Horton, it’s Warlick’s uncanny ability for suggesting books to customers that readers most respond to.

“We can show you exactly what we think you’ll like, or we can take you down a path and you can discover things,” Horton said. “I think that uniqueness and that personal touch is what’s going to make independent bookstores do well.”

M Judson has certainly being doing well. Each year, Horton said, has exceeded expectations, both in terms of sales and the community response. 

“You can go on Amazon and get a book, fine,” Horton added, “but you can’t get the sense of community you get here.”

The most recent Book and a Beer night, with Atkins and Joy swapping funny stories and discussing their favorite books, felt less like a formal event and more like a gathering in someone’s living room. Atkins talked about his time as a reporter, while Joy opened himself up for suggestions on how to end his next book. 

“Because I think the next book ends too upbeat and happy. Although it does end with a man standing naked and bloody on the side of a highway as a hellish storm is about to rain down and kill him, but hey — that’s about as upbeat as you’ll get from me,” he said to laughs from the crowd.

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After a few more beers, both authors hung around for awhile, signing books and taking suggestions on what bars and restaurants to check out for the rest of the night. 

This casual moment — as authors and readers gather together — is why Warlick thinks independent bookstores aren’t going anywhere.

“There’s no comparison,” Warlick said. “We’ve really enjoyed tremendous support from Greenville. We’re grateful for that everyday — and not just on Prime Day.”











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