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."
Not only independents' sales, but their ranks, are growing, too – albeit modestly. In 2009, the low point for its membership, the ABA had 1,401 members with 1,651 locations across the United States. Since then, the ABA has seen three straight years of growth. As of May 2012, it had 1,567 members with 1,900 locations. In January, Publishers Weekly magazine reported that the ABA had added another 40 bookstores in 24 states.
"I know it kind of flies in the face of what a lot of people kind of presume is the 'You've Got Mail' syndrome," says Teicher.
Today, in some cities, independents have outlasted the chains. In Santa Barbara, Calif., both Borders and Barnes & Noble have closed. Chaucer's Bookstore, founded in 1974, is still dispensing novels.
And while everyone is supposed to be staring into an e-reader in the future, instead of flipping pages, Mr. Mutter says studies show that digital books are not heading for 100 percent market saturation. In fact, he notes, "some people who switched to digital have switched back."