My wife and I had the chance to visit a small, independent bookstore today, and it was well worth the 25-minute trip.
Big Blue Marble Bookstore is in West Mount Airy, one of Philadelphia’s great neighborhoods.
According to its web site, “Big Blue Marble Bookstore is an independently owned bookstore located in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. We specialize in progressive and multicultural titles of interest to Philadelphians in general and Mt. Airy-ites in particular: children’s books; woman-centered pregnancy and parenting; sustainable living; lesbian/gay, African-American, and Jewish studies; feminist science fiction; literary graphic novels; and smart, fun fiction.”
We heard about the bookstore through a couple of recent Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper stories.
The first article focused on the resurgence of the independent bookstore. Independent booksellers are seeing a modest rebound in their fortunes by being hyperlocal, diversifying into new products, and of course selling books online. The American Booksellers Association, a trade group promoting independent booksellers, had 1,712 members as of May, an increase of 311 members – or 22 percent – since 2009. Books also are selling because the public supports local businesses. “Many want to live in places that are diverse rather than generic and dominated by large corporate chain stores,” says Dorothea von Moltke, owner of Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ.
The article notes that Sheila Avelin opened Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mount Airy in 2005. She sells toys and T-shirts to bolster sales, but books made up 83 percent of sales last year with 15,000 books sold. “We opened with a business model that was developed to be functional,” said Avelin, a high school English teacher-turned-bookstore owner. “The store is a community center. It’s a space where you can hang out and feel comfortable.” Big Blue Marble’s revenues went up by 6 percent from May last year, she said. Avelin does not have an online shop but uses her website to inform customers about events at her store. “The thing is, we’re not selling books; we’re selling a way people can connect around books.”
The second article was a feature piece on Big Blue Marble, noting how the small bookstore is thriving, offering a rigorous schedule of events. It has held 300 in the last year, almost six a week. “It’s been great for our bottom line and for neighborhood engagement with the store,” says Elliott batTzedek, outreach coordinator at Big Blue Marble. The event register includes book clubs and workshops, as well as author events. Just don’t expect to see Stephen King speaking in the rowhouse-cum-shop. Customers and speakers mostly hail from the surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, this past Sunday, the bookstore had a 12-year old and a 14-year old read from their new novels. “We are absolutely a neighborhood bookstore. [Avelin often says] we are nine miles from Center City in a residential neighborhood on a one-way street, but she knew when she opened that the neighborhood could sustain a bookstore,” says batTzedek.
Once my wife and I got to the bookstore, it was everything you would want in a small independent bookstore. An eclectic collection of books, employee recommendations, a cafe, comfortable chairs, meeting space, and a fabulous children’s section.
Going to bookstores is a popular activity for our family, and so it was nice to go somewhere other than Barnes & Noble for a change. (I’d also like to give a shout-out to two other great independent bookstores we’ve come across, the Tattered Cover in Denver, CO and Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC). My wife and I have actually started putting together a list of some things we would like to be near when we retire, and a bookstore and library are in the top five. A store like Blue Marble would be perfect, so it is nice to see that such stores are making a bit of a comeback.
So thank you to people like Sheila Avelin for having the courage and the vision to open an independent bookstore at a time when many people were writing them off because of the rise of the big chain bookstores, Amazon, and e-books. I wish you and your fellow bookstore owners continued success and we look forward to our next visit.
Notes: Here are two other recent article about the resurgence of independent bookstores:
The Rise of the Independent Bookstore (Huffington Post) and
The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores (Christian Science Monitor)