The climate has changed drastically for brick-and-mortar bookstores. As readers trade hardback books for e-readers and turn to Amazon or other online retailers for their purchases, headlines suggest the disappearance of the neighborhood bookstore. In the past few years, the Atlanta area has witnessed the closure of Midtown’s Outwrite Bookstore, Decatur’s Blue Elephant Bookstore and the Borders national chain, shrinking the local square footage for browsing and conversations about books.
But despite a tough economy, some bookstores in metro Atlanta are hanging on and finding ways to change with the times.
A Cappella Books opened in 1989 and moved to its newest location, a block and a half east of the Inman Park MARTA station, a year ago. It resides in a charming, 100-year-old brick cottage a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks, in a setting as picturesque as the Whistle Stop Café in Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes. A Cappella carries new, used, out-of-print and collectible books and, apropos of its name, books about music.
Four miles to the east, on historic Decatur Square, a glass storefront welcomes big and little readers to Little Shop of Stories, which calls itself “the best independent bookstore for kids and the grownups they become.” Since 2005 it has served young people with everything from picture books to middle-grade books to young adult novels. With bright yellow walls covered with pictures, a dinosaur cutout leading children to the nonfiction section and a lavender playhouse in the back, Little Shop isn’t just a bookstore; it’s like a fantasy out of a storybook.
Perhaps what has kept both establishments going strong is their focus on the intangible benefits of a small, independent bookstore, which can’t be matched by large online retailers. The major advantage brick-and-mortar bookstores have over online sellers is their connection to their community and individual readers.
“It’s hard to compete with Amazon’s prices or the immediate gratification of buying a book for a Kindle,” says Little Shop manager Krista Gilliam. “But I think having a niche helps. We are primarily a children’s bookstore, so we can really focus our energy on what we know and what we do well.”
She believes that stores such as hers foster an intimate atmosphere and authentic relationships. “We know [our customers’] names, we know what they like to read, and we love putting new books in their hands,” Gilliam says. “We are … fortunate to be in a community that really values local independent businesses, and they do a great job of supporting us.”
Similarly, A Cappella owner Frank Reiss believes that his store, staffed by longtime employees with deep roots in Atlanta, offers customers a place to shop that has a history and a connection to the local culture. “We’re just folks who happen to enjoy books and have chosen to spend our lives with them, and a lot of other folks who feel similarly connected to books can recognize that in our shop,” he says. “It’s kind of like the difference between hanging out with a few good friends and being required to attend a huge party where you feel like you have to mingle but you don’t really know anybody and don’t have much in common with them.”
Little Shop hosts dozens of authors a year at the store. Last year it welcomed, among many others, best-selling memoirist Anne Lamott, Pioneer Woman author Ree Drummond and Mac Burnett, author of picture book Chloe and the Lion.
Like most bookstores, Little Shop of Stories doesn’t just sell books. It hosts monthly meetings of book clubs, including a catch-all group for people in their 20s and 30s; “The Guys Who Read,” for men who drink while discussing books; the “Not-So-Young-Adult Book Club,” for adults who read young adult literature; the “Page Turners,” for middle-school girls; and “Kids & Companions,” for children eight to 11 “and the adult of their choice.” Regular story times attract the littlest customers. And for children out of school, the store offers popular book-themed summer camps.
Though A Cappella is too small to serve as a meeting place for groups, it has hosted some noteworthy authors at other venues, such as former Vice President Al Gore at the Carter Center, social critic Camille Paglia at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor Susan Puckett at Manuel’s Tavern. On March 23, in conjunction with the AJC Decatur Book Festival, A Cappella is bringing author and political commentator Rachel Maddow to Atlanta Symphony Hall.
Reiss sees a bookmobile in A Cappella’s future. “We love our neighborhood, but I really think that being part of the community means getting out into that community where people who share our interests might be gathering.”
Gilliam, meanwhile, believes that keys to Little Shop’s future success include its involvement with school book fairs and the continued growth of its popular community reading program, “On the Same Page.” A Cappella is keeping its overhead costs down. Reiss moved his store to its current, less expensive space after deciding that the benefit of being in a high-traffic location wasn’t enough to justify the cost.
Both stores have embraced the Internet, using Facebook and Twitter to reach new customers and advertise events. Little Shop sends out a monthly newsletter to about 5,000 people. A Cappella maintains a blog, and sales from its website are a “robust” part of its business, Reiss says.
Above all, Gilliam and Reiss believe in the intrinsic value and viability of books and bookstores. “Someday, maybe, books won’t matter,” says Reiss. “[B]ut I am confident that day is a long way off.” Adds Gilliam: “We sell books, sure, but we’re selling much more than that.”
What are we reading?
Lawrence Wright’s new book on Scientology, Going Clear
Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
George Saunders’ Tenth of December
Hilary Mantel’s Bringing Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Reiss recommends Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Joseph Crespino’s Strom Thurmond’s America.
Little Shop of Stories:
Classic picture books, such as Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are, remain favorites. New spins on fairy tales, such as Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm and In a Glass Grimmly, are hot sellers among middle schoolers. John Green’s The Fault of Our Stars has been a best seller among young adult books. Though the store’s selection of adult books is limited, popular titles include Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Flight Behavior and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.