Sales at independent bookstores rose about 8 percent in 2012 over 2011, according to a survey by the American Booksellers Association (ABA). This growth was all the more remarkable since the sales of the national chain Barnes & Noble were so tepid. "I think the worst days of the independents are behind them," says Jim Milliot, coeditorial director for Publishers Weekly magazine. "The demise of traditional print books has been a bit overblown. Everybody is a little anxious, but they are starting to think they've figured it out for the time being."
Independents are valued more these days by publishers, who need them for their print sales. Their small size and low infrastructure – seen as a liability in the mid-1990s – are also considered an advantage.
"We absolutely believe indies are the small, fast-moving mammals in this dynamic," said Michael Tamblyn, chief content officer of Kobo, speaking at the ABA's Winter Institute in Kansas City, Mo., in February. In November, Kobo, a Toronto-based e-reading company, partnered with the ABA to sell e-readers and e-books at independent stores. So far, about 450 have signed on.
"If e-books are the asteroid hitting this planet, small independent bookstores are the ones most likely to come out the other side," said Mr. Tamblyn.
* * *
Industry insiders believe several other developments have helped revive indies in recent years. One has been widely cited as an example of bookstores' shaky paperbound future.
"Part of the reason we had a good 2012 was that Borders went away," says ABA head Oren Teicher, of the Michigan-based chain that closed its remaining stores in 2011. "Some number of those customers shopping at bricks-and-mortars have found a way to independent stores."
A second factor is the buy-local movement, which has grown steadily over the past five years. It has benefited everyone from restaurateurs to toy store owners to artisan soap and jam makers to those who run creaky-floored hardware stores. Independent bookstores are what urbanists call "third places," like farmers' markets, that add to a community's sense of identity. And like farmers' markets, some customers come for the atmosphere, not the prices.