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The novel resurgence of independent bookstores

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"We don't read in the store," says Mr. Goldin, who has, however, been known to open up at 7 a.m. for a regular customer or drive two hours to help out an author at an event.

Today's owners often have researched the business and worked in other stores before they started putting up shelves. Goldin, for example, worked as a buyer for Schwartz Books and bought his storefront location from the former owners when the local chain closed in 2009 after 82 years.

In another encouraging sign, John Mutter, editor in chief of Shelf Awareness, publisher of two industry newsletters, sees more young owners than he did five years ago, when industry events "were a sea of gray hair," he says.

At bookstores nationwide, the community event has replaced the cat as de rigueur. Independents have added cafes and costume plays, and sell everything from locally made cards, T-shirts, and toys to chocolates and calendars.

In Austin, Texas, Steve Bercu, owner of the 28,000-square-foot BookPeople, has a camp director on staff. The full-time employee runs the store's popular Camp Half-Blood, modeled after Rick Riordan's bestselling "Percy Jackson" series about demigods living in modern America. In addition to climbing walls and swimming, the 11-to-14-year-old campers learn about Greek and Roman mythology from university classical scholars.

Every November, parents line up at 4 a.m. to get tickets, which sell out within hours for the next summer – some have even camped out overnight to secure their child a spot. Mr. Bercu also has added a "Ranger's Apprentice" camp and, new this summer, a "Star Wars" camp.

"People are loyal to us as customers because their children are loyal to us as campers," says Bercu, whose store opened in Austin in 1970.

But surely business was better in the good old days – when Amazon was just a river in South America?

"We had the best year in store history in 2012," says Bercu, a founder of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, which promotes locally owned businesses. "It was the third best year in a row. We're up 12 percent so far for 2013."

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