As a cold rain hits the windowpane, memories of summer start to fade. How do you keep yourself from going stir crazy during the long winter’s hibernation? That question has a simple answer: by curling up with an enjoyable book. The opening line from The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is, “Under certain circumstances, there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea” — except perhaps those spent with a good book! But where are people going these days to buy their reading material? According to a Forbes.com article from February 2014, the number of independent (indie) bookstores has decreased by more than 50 percent in the last 20 years. This decrease has been attributed to big-box stores like Barnes & Noble, online resources such as Amazon, and the arrival of e-books. Yet, when asking for retail recommendations, many people still refer their friends to a place with a nice selection, a lot of atmosphere, and friendly people who can steer you toward just the right page-turner.
Baldwin’s Book Barn, an 80-year-old shop in West Chester, Pa., has “become an event or a destination” for some customers and a curiosity for others, according to owner Tom Baldwin. “People come in to buy books they can’t get online,” he says, noting that Baldwin’s carries some 300,000 used, rare, fine, and antiquarian books, as well as maps, prints manuscripts, and more. But the atmosphere is also something that cannot be reproduced — from the wood-burning stove to the cats inside the five-story, converted dairy barn.
Cathy Fiebach, the owner of Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, Pa., says she has witnessed an increasing number of people ditching their e-Readers for traditional paper books. “There have been a lot of changes in the way people buy books,” she admits, “but the ascendance of e-Readers has slowed down, with many people choosing a book for its tactile benefits and because they feel that they already spend too much time on screens.” Fiebach also notes that studies have found that people sleep better if they turn off their computers or e-Readers well before bedtime, which makes books “a perfect pre-bedtime companion.”
Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, Pa., received a 2014 “Best of the Main Line” award from Main Line Today. In its summary of the shop’s finer qualities, the magazine noted, “You’ll need time to absorb the ever-changing inventory at this friendly shop. Serious bibliophiles can peruse the collection of first and signed editions, while bargain-hunters will love the selection of used literary fiction, nonfiction, and children’s classics.” The people at Wellington Square keep book-buyers coming back to the store by providing “a level of service and an experience that can’t be replicated in a context where the ‘bottom line’ rules and capitalism is a given,” says owner Sam Hankin. “We are here because we love it. We love reading and discovering new books and meeting people who share this passion.”
For Whom the (Door)Bell Tolls
If you think corner bookstores have a limited clientele passing through their front door these days — particularly diehard book collectors and older folks who maybe aren’t very Web savvy — think again. Tom Baldwin says that indie shops make great gathering places for all types of people. Baldwin’s Book Barn serves a “diverse clientele of college students, teachers, high school students on field trips, truck drivers, and CEOs of corporations,” he explains. The Baldwin’s Book Barn staff is comprised of people well versed in the literary world who are more than happy to direct patrons toward something that fit their interests. Or visitors can wander through the converted orange crate bookshelves to discover something for themselves.
Main Point Books, which opened in 2013 after big-box bookstores in the area closed, sells books and gifts (and does, by the way, offer online book-purchasing via the store’s website). Fiebach opened the shop because she wanted a “community center where people could come to hear authors speak, receive book recommendations, and meet their neighbors.” During its first year in business, Main Point Books has hosted more than 100 events, such as book clubs, signings, and children’s story times.
Hankin has seen families coming into the Wellington Square Bookshop in growing numbers — everyone from youngsters who enjoy getting comfortable in the cozy kids’ reading area to grandmothers searching for some leisure reading. And as far as Hankin is concerned, part of the charm of a corner bookstore is that it’s not all about the sale. He recalls a 12-year-old boy who came into the shop looking for a copy of War and Peace. “I couldn’t sell it to him; I had to give it to him,” Hankin says. “It just seemed right and it made me happy – a ‘pay it forward’ kind of thing, and something that could never happen at Barnes & Noble.”