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."
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E-books are just the latest in a string of threats that were supposed to kill off independents. In the 1930s, some people believed the paperback would mean the death of bookstores. In the 1970s, it was mall chains like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks.
"Those are all gone now," says Mutter.
Another factor that may be contributing to the independents' survival is that so many bookstores have closed, they have found a sustainable level. From 2000 to 2007, 1,000 bookstores went out of business in the US, according to federal statistics. Collectively, independents have about a 10 percent share of the market, compared with Amazon's 29 percent and Barnes & Noble's 20 percent.
None of this is to say that closures have stopped. Pudd'nhead Books in St. Louis, Archivia Books in New York, and Rainy Day Books in Tillamook, Ore., are among those that shut down in December.
Yet new ones are sprouting up to take their place. In Brooklyn, where the Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers closed last year, several new bookstores have opened.