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The novel resurgence of independent bookstores

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"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.

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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.

"The localism movement in America has really reached a tipping point," says Mr. Teicher. "It's no longer just a few people out there preaching localism."

In addition, the rise of social media means that bookstores can reach customers without the benefit of giant advertising budgets. And the cost of payroll and inventory systems, which used to be prohibitively expensive for a small store, have come down.

"Technology has really helped level the playing field enormously in how our members can be competitive," says Teicher.

For the most part, gone are the days of the hobbyist who opened an independent bookstore because he or she just loved to read. In fact, Daniel Goldin, owner of the Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, recently refused to pose for a newspaper while reading a book.

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