That there’s a space specializing in the areas of food, wine, art and design on the Westside — home to many of Atlanta’s contemporary art galleries and its trendiest high-end restaurants — isn’t surprising. That it’s a bookstore, perhaps, is.
Opened just over a year ago in a loftlike locale with exposed brick walls and concrete floors, standard thanks to the area’s industrial history, Cover Books offers an eclectic mix of nonfiction titles (think “The Art of French Baking,” volumes on the works of artists like de Kooning and Warhol, obscure anthologies like “The Stanley Kubrick Archives,” and even the recently released “Grace: The American Vogue Years,” along with a small selection of independent and European magazines).
It’s a carefully curated collection. The walls aren’t lined floor to ceiling with overcrowded shelves like you might see at other stores. Rather the books are given room to be seen, with covers facing out on shelving and tables displaying featured tomes.
“I designed the space so that the books themselves were the focal point, that they were objects in and of themselves,” owner Katie Barringer explains.
Though the highly visual books Barringer carries particularly lend themselves to the printed format, Cover’s mere existence is a sign that physical books, and the independent bookstores that sell them, may be making a comeback.
A decade ago, analysts were declaring the death of the bookstore as the advent of Amazon and e-readers drove the demise of small, independent shops. Even some big-box retailers couldn’t compete with the convenience of buying online — Borders filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and closed the last of its stores the same year.
But after a long period of decline, the bookstore industry is rebounding. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has risen from 1,410 in 2010 to 1,712 in 2015; about a 21 percent increase. The sales have followed: Census Bureau data shows that bookstore sales increased 2.5 percent last year — the first time they’ve grown since 2007 — and were already up another 6 percent the first half of this year.
As it turns out, people still like buying their books the old-fashioned way.
Robert Fader, vice president of Posman Books, has always trusted that.
“We had faith in the printed word,” he says of the family-owned mini-chain and its resilience in a wavering market. “Sure the market changed, but we believe that each generation finds their way into bookstores in their own way.”
Posman Books opened its first store in New York City’s Grand Central Station back in 1999 and just opened its latest last month in Old Fourth Ward’s Ponce City Market. Like its two other current locations (both in New York City, at Chelsea Market and Rockefeller Center), the new Atlanta locale offers a mix of fiction and nonfiction in addition to a large children’s section and a selection of toys, games and greeting cards.
Establishing a successful store takes more than just lining the shelves, though. “You need to provide an inviting environment,” Fader explains.
Reading may be a solitary activity, but books are something to be shared: People like to talk about them, their authors, their subject matters. And bookstores have a long history of marrying the unsociable notion of reading with the ideals of community that the books themselves command. The stores represent the charming idea of that “third place,” where people can go to gather outside of home or work, whether for in-store readings or to browse and get recommendations from bookstore staff.
In a time when people are searching for a real sense of connection rather than the formulated one online, the independent bookstores that are proving the most successful are those that foster this sense of community, and cater to the clientele within it.
Cover’s done that all too well. Its events are also particularly effective at drawing customers. “We host around three to four events every month,” Barringer says. “They range from traditional book launches and signings to more offbeat events like a late-night Summer Solstice party, art shows and cookbook-inspired dinners. … Collaborating with other local businesses, like restaurants and arts organizations, has done a lot to broaden my customer base.”
The key word there is local. Independent bookstores are further benefiting today from the “shop local” movement that has consumers increasingly opting to invest in their own communities and the businesses helping build them.
It’s a sentiment that extends to the product sold within the stores as well.
That’s why Dan Collier, the owner of Read Shop, makes sure to carry titles from Georgia- and Atlanta-based authors among an assortment of cookbooks, design books and New York Times Bestsellers. The entrepreneur behind the Merchant stores at Howell Mill and Krog Street Market, and Archer Paper Goods and Collier Candy Company, both at Ponce City Market, Collier opened Read Shop over the summer at Vinings Jubilee. The merchandise mix includes some of the stationery and gifts you’ll find at his other shops — especially anything that features peaches or our beloved city.
“One unique thing about all of my stores: Our customer loves regional products, and they love things that say Atlanta,” Collier explains.
There are many other theories as to what exactly bookstores owe their renewed success: the resurgence of printed books, social media, even demographics, referring to the recent shift back to city centers, where real estate is more suited for smaller shops than so-called superstores. That’s certainly a potential factor in Atlanta, where the city is capturing more residential growth and the suburban sprawl is said to be slowing down.
For Posman, the decision to expand to Atlanta was a strategic one, and had to do with opportunity — and logistics.
“Atlanta seems to us to be exactly the kind of significant city that we should be looking at,” Fader says. “It is not all that well served with bookstores, has a large educated cosmopolitan population and is very easy to get to from New York!”
Other analyses aren’t quite as calculated, like the argument for the endless, intrinsic allure of bookstores. “I love books so much and I really believe in bookstores — and in every city I go into and every town that has a great bookstore, I always support it by buying books,” Collier says. “And I know there are customers out there that think like I do.”
SOME INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES
1031 Marietta St., Suite A, Atlanta. 470-225-7733, cover-books.com.
4300 Paces Ferry Road S.E., Suite 125, Atlanta. 678-742-7853, readshopatl.com.
675 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 470-355-9041, posmanbooks.com.