On May 2, Independent Bookstores (Finally) Get Their Day

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Independent Bookstore Day goes national for the first time on Saturday, and we chat with some New York-based booksellers about how they'll be celebrating.
Independent Bookstore Day goes national for the first time on Saturday, and we chat with some New York-based booksellers about how they’ll be celebrating.

Do you love books and quirky neighborhoods shops? Then on Saturday, May 2, get up early and support your local bookstore because it’s the first-ever nationwide Independent Bookstore Day, which will be celebrated with events, limited-edition merchandise, book signings and giveaways.

Independent Bookstore Day began last year in California at 93 participating stores in the state and this year expanded to 350 stores across the country. The idea was the brainchild of Pete Mulvihill and Samantha Schoech, co-owners of Green Apple Books in San Francisco. It then got off the ground through the help of Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

Similar to Record Store Day or Free Comic Book Day, the effort is meant to get people excited about independent bookstores, small publishing houses and to help readers discover authors they may have missed or not been aware of. But it is not just about Californians and their chic and cool ideas: The event will bring book nerds, the intellectually curious and collectors of rare items to events, book signings and will pair books with beers as people party down for the love of books.

(Photo by Noah Zuss)
Community Bookstore in Brooklyn has a full slate of events for Independent Bookstore Day. (Photo by Noah Zuss)

“The idea is it’s a celebration of independent bookstores and an encouragement to get people out to show their support and enthusiasm for bookstores. It’s going to be a national party,” Stephanie Valdez, co-owner of Community Bookstore and Terrace Books in Brooklyn, told TheBlot Magazine. “We are showing our enthusiasm for our customers by having cool swag and cool special merchandise for them to buy on that day as well as events.”

The relative giants and tastemakers of the independent book world, including Manhattan’s world-famous Strand Book Store in Manhattan and its “18 miles of books,” is also involved. And the participating stores in the New York region alone run the spectrum, from Bluestockings on the Lower East Side — a non-hierarchical and collectively run shop that formerly specialized in feminist books and has now transitioned to stocking titles that focus on an overall critique of oppressive systems in society — to McNally Jackson Books in SoHo, which caters to the more well-heeled and style-conscious customer.

But one thing these stores all have in common is an influence that is larger than their size. Big stores and the marketing and online selling behemoth that shall not be named here will always move bestsellers, but independent bookstores make authors at smaller publishing houses shine by readers’ sheer enthusiasm.

“We hope customers will come out to celebrate independent bookstores and enjoy a special day at Strand,” Brianne Sperber, the store’s marketing manager, said. “We’re hosting a special story time visit from Elmo for kids and Kate Gavino from the popular literary blog ‘Last Night’s Reading’ will do portraits.”

(Photo courtesy Strand Book Store)
Part of Strand Book Store’s ’18 miles of books.’ (Photo courtesy Strand Book Store)

Strand will also sell exclusive Independent Bookstore Day books and merchandise, including a limited-edition Roxane Gay chapbook, a small collection of poetry centered around a theme, which will be signed by the “Bad Feminist: Essays” author. Other exclusives Sperber said will be part of Strand’s Independent Bookstore Day celebration include signed prints from cartoonist Chris Ware and signed copies of “Captain Underpants,” the children’s novel series by American author and illustrator Dav Pilkey.

At Valdez’ two stores, “It will be everything from free food, and we are going to have free beer all afternoon, too,” she said.

Similar to how the independent stores in California helped each other during the initial event there last year, New York stores are all rooting for each other to succeed. For example, Green Apple Books won Publisher’s Weekly Bookstore of the Year award after it was nominated by a buyer at a rival bookstore. And thanks to the power of recommendations from buyers in bookstores, these stores are thriving in many communities that demand local knowledge and eschew the big guys for a different experience.

Connecting community, connecting readers

Though independent bookstores are under many pressures — paying New York rent, for example — by engaging with readers and hand-selling titles, they are able to remain in the communities where they operate. And titles that began as smaller or limited prints can grow through this groundswell of organic support. “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed is one title that benefitted from hand-selling to become a nationwide phenomenon and big-budget movie starring Reese Witherspoon, who nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

“We really can’t compete on price, we can only compete on service and physical space and our cool events and our weird swag,” Valdez said. “I think Independent Bookstore Day is supposed to show the things that we do best — community spirit, books you can’t find anywhere else, amazing booksellers that are fun to interact with, events that are one-of-a-kind.”

Gay’s chapbook will be available at Community Bookstore as well, and Valdez is excited that it will get people in the door. “That’s an example of something that I think our customers are going to flood into our stores for,” she shared. “It’s cool to have something exclusive to offer, and its cool to have a day that feels like a party.”

While it is mostly fun and games to get people in the doors, Independent Bookstore Day has a larger meaning. Small stores and indie booksellers support community engagement and nurture the intellectually curious, said Sarah Olle, a Bluestockings collective member. “We feel that we definitely want to reach out to a broader community,” she added. “We have a really good, solid base of frequent customers who know us and come here for our unique book selection, but we think we also have a lot to offer to customers who never heard of us.”

Inside Blue, a volunteer-run and collectively owned radical bookstore on the Lower East Side. (Photo by Noah Zuss)
Inside Bluestockings, a volunteer-run and collectively owned radical bookstore on New York’s Lower East Side. (Photo by Noah Zuss)

And the mission is not only to engage, but also to connect people interested in political and social issues.

“Doing Independent Bookstore Day allows us to gain access to a bit of a broader audience who may not be familiar with our politics but are maybe interested in what we have to offer,” Olle said. “We also have a large selection of queer studies, anarchism and anti-capitalism, a lot about global justice. We are a bookstore that really tries to critique the oppressive hierarchies that we see in society and that is what our titles cater to.”

Many of Bluestockings’ customers, Olle said, are interested “in making deliberate ethical choices in purchasing books. So even though it may be cheaper to buy it online, they will voluntarily come to a place like Bluestockings because they know that every book they buy here helps us stay open,” she added.

For Valdez and Community Bookstore and Terrace Books, the day is a chance to connect with window shoppers as well. “It gives us a chance to connect books with readers in a different way,” she explained. “I think having an event gives people a different sense of priority about a book, and it gives them an additional reason to care.”

Events at Community Bookstore will start with a “mad scientist party” for kids, where they are encouraged to dress up in costumes. Later on for the adults, “we’re going to have some guest booksellers in the afternoon, and in then in evening, we are having a very eclectic event with Felix Harr, a friend of Paul Auster,” Valdez said.

Other items at the shop include posters of book covers from independent publisher New Directions that were created by Alvin Lustig, a cult cover designer. “That’s something that we think book nerds will be really excited about,” Valdez said. “We are also going to have some swag related to our cat. Our cat is very famous in our neighborhood, people follow him on Twitter, people love photos of him on Instagram, so we’ll have some cat swag. Tiny the Usurper swag will be here.”

No matter where you are, be sure to check out events at your favorite local bookstore this Saturday, May 2 — or even pop into a new one to support this great day.

Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.

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