There’s been good news recently for bibliophiles in Boston; a wave of independent bookstores are opening new storefronts around the city.
Shop owners, managers, and industry leaders are cheering the development, which comes on the heels of a pandemic that caused the shuttering of many local businesses.
“I think we are in a real renaissance at this point where indie bookstores are on the upswing, after years of not being — or people were closing,” said Jeff Peters, owner and chief operating officer of East End Books in Provincetown, which is slated to open a Boston location by the end of the year.
Porter Square Books kicked off the string of new openings in the city a year ago, when the Cambridge mainstay set up a second location in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood last October, partnering with the creative writing nonprofit GrubStreet. The new shop — Porter Square Books: Boston Edition — is part of GrubStreet’s new home at 50 Liberty Drive, which also features a state for literary events, a podcast studio, and, eventually, a cafe.
After years without, Beacon Hill also now has a new bookstore. Beacon Hill Books & Cafe, which occupies an entire townhouse on Charles Street, opened at the end of last month.
And before the year is out, another new shop will open in the Seaport. East End Books will unveil a new location at 300 Pier 4 Boulevard, in partnership with nextdoor neighbor Kristin Canty, owner of restaurant Woods Hill Pier 4, around Hanukkah or Christmas.
The expansions of established indies into Boston will continue next year with another beloved Cambridge shop, Harvard Book Store, planning to open a second location in the Prudential Center sometime during the spring.
What’s behind the ‘boom’?
While all the bookstore openings mentioned above were planned before COVID-19 emerged, industry members who spoke with Boston.com posited that the pandemic is contributing to, or helping shape, the resurgence of indie bookstores in several ways.
Melissa Fetter, owner of the recently opened Beacon Hill Books & Cafe, said she thinks one of the driving forces coming out of the pandemic is that a lot of people had more time, as a result of disrupted commutes and in-person routines, to read and reflect on how they spent their time.
“I think that has given a real boon to the pleasure of reading,” she said.
At the same time, she pointed out that during the pandemic, people witnessed so many independent, local stores “on Main Street” going out of business.
She noted that on the five blocks of Charles Street, more than a dozen retailers closed because of the pandemic.
“I think seeing so vividly what can happen so quickly, and how it really does change the dynamic of a neighborhood if you do not have an active, vital, vibrant, high street, I think that is causing all of us to realize, ‘OK, if I’m going to have these great stores in my neighborhood, I have to really walk the talk, and I have to be in there supporting all of these businesses,’” Fetter said.
It’s a perspective that many of the managers and owners who spoke to Boston.com agreed on, including David Sandberg, co-owner of Porter Square Books.
He emphasized that for years independent retailers have been telling their communities that if people don’t shop locally, local businesses would disappear.
“Then the pandemic happened and they did disappear,” he said. “Local businesses went out of business like crazy. And suddenly people said, ‘Oh, you were actually right. This is actually important. We do have to support local businesses. Because we’re going to get screwed. We’re going to have nothing but Walmarts and Amazon.’”
As a result, there was a huge surge in consumer support for independent bookstores at the start of the pandemic, Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.
Alex Meriwether, chief creative officer at Harvard Book Store, said that not only does there seem to be awareness of the value of brick and mortar businesses as community spaces, but also, he suggested, that the pandemic may have contributed to greater awareness of the “collective cost of spending all of our time and resources and algorithms and data to fuel virtual spaces” like Amazon and social media platforms.
“Authentic experiences are just rare and valuable and bookstores are just a really magical place,” he said.
Sandberg said in his view, the pandemic has definitely seen the narrative about Amazon changing as news about the company’s treatment of employees during COVID-19 and the movement of its employees to unionize.
The bloom, Sandberg argued, was “off the rose.”
“Since our biggest competitor is not Harvard Book Store down the street from us or Belmont Books in the next town, but Amazon, that helped independents,” he said. “Look, our numbers are still tiny, we’re still a tiny percentage of the market … I’m not saying Jeff Bezos is quaking in his boots because of independent bookstores. But I do think that one thing the pandemic did is make people hate Amazon a little bit more. And the alternative to Amazon, when you’re talking about books, is indie bookstores.”
And, he said, until March 2020, most people assumed that if you wanted to support your local bookstore, you had to go to the shop physically to buy books, while online orders had to be placed through Amazon.
The pandemic has changed that perception as people gained awareness that they could, in fact, order books online from their favorite indies, both Sandberg and Peters agreed.
And that awareness has been a boon for independent bookstores, particularly early in the pandemic, according to Ineson.
“Their core consumer really responded during that time,” she said.
Sandberg estimated that pre-pandemic, Porter Square Books usually had five to 10 online sales a day, with online orders representing a little under 5% of the business in 2019.
“In 2021, they were 25 percent of our business,” he said. “And that’s 100 percent the pandemic that changed that, but it’s a permanent change. Not at the level that it was during the pandemic, because people are no longer afraid of going out, but a steady enough level that is a material portion of our business that wasn’t there before that will persist.”
Separate from the pandemic, Peters said there’s also been a lot of work by national groups, like American Booksellers Association, that has helped create interest and awareness around indie bookstores.
He recalled that when he tried to open up shop eight years ago, banks weren’t interested.
“They would laugh at you if you said I’d like a loan to open an independent bookstore, because they were closing in large numbers,” he said.
He credited the ABA for being a part of the reversal of that trend, pointing in particular to work done by the group to get individuals who weren’t “traditionally” part of the industry — women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community — up and running bookstores.
“I think that’s made a big difference, because people are engaged in the communities with their bookstores and have a stake in that bookstore,” he said.
Ineson said the trend of new bookstores opening is not unique to Boston — it has been region-wide, with “a ton” of new stores opening in the last year.
“We normally have a few new stores open each year,” Ineson said. “But our new store membership count has gone up by 33 stores in the last couple — that’s New England-wide. But that is triple the number of new stores that have opened in the previous three years that I was in this job.”
It’s a difficult region, between the high cost of living and real estate price tags, to make opening a bookstore, which typically has narrow margins, work, Ineson said.
“So to see this little boomlet of stores has been particularly gratifying,” she said.
Looking at the trend of why booksellers are choosing Boston as the place to expand or open up shop is a harder question to answer.
Indie bookstores in the city have ebbed and flowed over the years, going from a point when there were many shops to not many at all, Ineson said.
“Everything about Boston should lead it to having a bookstore in every neighborhood, because of the educated population, because of the walkability of the city, because of the number of academic institutions in the city,” the NEIBA executive director said. “All of the factors are there for Boston to be a vital bookstore town, but that has waxed and waned over the years.”
Anecdotally, Ineson said her organization has seen that while cost of residential real estate went wild during pandemic, vacancies emerged in the commercial sector as businesses closed.
That created, perhaps, an opportunity for bookstores to get space in Boston — and elsewhere – when they might not have been able pre-pandemic.
Sandberg said Porter Square Books had been approached more than once over the years about opening a second location, but it ended up being a confluence of three factors in early 2019 that resulted in the push for the Seaport location. First, he said, was the fact that GrubStreet had approached them about partnering for the new space. At the same time, in the previous year or so, Sandberg and his wife, Dina Mardell, had decided to sell half of Porter Square Books to a group of their employees
“Having that large a team of people who really felt responsible and invested and connected to the store made us much more willing to take on a huge project than if it had just been me and Dina … and as a team, there was tremendous enthusiasm for doing it,” he said.
But the third factor, he said, was Boston itself.
“It doesn’t take a brilliant amount of perception to see that Boston needed more bookstores,” Sandberg said.
The Porter Square Books owner said he’s cheered seeing the wave of new openings that have followed.
“It’s about time,” he said.
Peters, owner of East End Books, the soon-to-be-neighbor of Porter Square Books in the Seaport, said opening a location in Boston had always been part of his long-term plan for his business.
The Seaport, also, has always been where he hoped to open a second location. He said it reminds him of what the South Bank of London was like before the Globe theater was rebuilt in the ’90s.
“I just think it’s a really vibrant area and I feel as if we’re just seeing the very beginnings of what’s possible there in the Seaport,” he said. “And I am just thrilled and excited to be a part of that.”
Love of a specific neighborhood in Boston was also a driving force for Fetter in the opening of Beacon Hill Books & Cafe. She said when she and her husband moved back to the neighborhood three years ago, they were surprised to find there were no bookstores.
When the couple lived in Beacon Hill during the ’80s, she recalled, there were three booksellers in the immediate neighborhood.
The more Fetter thought about it, the more she realized she was the one who should start a bookstore in the neighborhood. She purchased the building that fit her vision for the store in 2019, and the shop opened at the end of last month.
“My thinking was as follows, Boston is a place one would expect to find the best of bookstores around the country,” she said. “And if you were to break it down further, one would suspect that Beacon Hill had a great bookstore. It’s a community that attracts readers and people who take their intellectual life quite seriously. And so it just seemed like it was an opportunity waiting to be filled, so that’s really what motivated me.”
Meanwhile, for Harvard Book Store, the expansion into Boston is, in some ways, a return to the old days of the business, which used to have multiple locations, including a shop on Newbury Street. (The Harvard Square location has been flying solo since the ’80s.)
“Harvard Square, no question, is very much the heart of Harvard Book Store,” Meriwether said. “But there is a history of bringing the Harvard Book Store’s sensibilities about books and the indie spirit to other communities in Boston.”
Meriwether said opening a second location has been a long-term goal of the store’s leadership going back pre-pandemic. The thinking is that the new spot in the Prudential Center could be configured in a way that would complement the Harvard location and also reflect the community it will be in, he said.
One way that could be reflected in the Prudential Center location is an expanded children’s section.
“That’s just one of many examples of something that we could do a little bit differently in a different community and really thrive, while offering something that isn’t the same as what we do in Cambridge, while still being Harvard Book Store no matter where we go,” Meriwether said. “And that’s what we’re working on now.”
Does so many bookstores mean too much competition?
Could Boston get to the point of having so many bookstores where competition between the indies could lead to a bust? That’s not something anyone who spoke with Boston.com for this article is worried about.
“It is my view that more stores make us stronger, no matter what,” Ineson said. “And the more stores, the better. Those concerns about competition always exist, but as we know from living in Boston, neighborhoods are very distinct. And you want to shop in your neighborhood.”
People living in Beacon Hill, she suggested, are more likely to want to shop on Charles Street than, say, heading down Newbury Street to Trident Booksellers & Cafe, and vice versa for residents of Back Bay.
“The neighborhoods are distinct and I think it just makes the industry all the richer for having more stores,” she said.
Fetter agreed, and she and other booksellers pointed out that separate from neighborhood geography, each indie store offers customers a uniquely curated selection of titles, events, and distinct environments.
Her townhouse shop provides a different experience, she noted, than what shoppers will find at Harvard Book Store’s location in the Prudential Center, for instance.
“I think we’re all coming at it with a slightly different angle and I don’t think we will infringe on one another’s business,” she said. “What we all need to do is cut into the vast majority of books that are purchased online. If we could all just do that, if we could eke out a percentage of Jeff Bezos’s business, we would be doing just fine. We don’t need to worry about one another, what we need to worry about is the intrusion of online ordering.”
Sandberg also dispelled the idea that indie bookstores are in direct competition with one another.
He said that when Belmont Books opened in 2017, he was sure that Porter Square Books would see an impact on their sales, since the Cambridge shop has “tons” customers in neighboring Belmont and Arlington.
Instead, sales went up.
“What would be natural to believe would be that if a lot of stores open they’re all going to compete with each other and some of them are not going to make it, and they’re going to go out of business because there’s not going to be enough to go around,” he said. “I think exactly the opposite is true.”
Both Fetter and Meriwether invoked the expression, “A rising tide lifts all boats” when asked about any potential concerns of competition.
“It makes Boston even more of a literary city and a destination for authors, who want to do readings, or book tourists,” Meriwether said, noting that he is himself looking forward to being just a few blocks away from a bookstore whenever he’s in the city.
“It’s just magical, isn’t it?” he said.
But Meriwether and others stressed that the renaissance of bookstores in Boston is happening because of “the customers.”
“This is happening because the people of greater Boston want bookstores and are shopping at bookstores,” he said. “And we just ask that they continue to do so — and support all of the community spaces and coffee shops and restaurants. We don’t want to go away.”
Editor’s note: John Henry, who owns Boston Globe Media Partners, is also a part-owner of Harvard Book Store.