A Toast to Indie Bookstores

A general view of atmosphere is seen during a signing for James Franco’s new book "Straight James/Gay James" at Book Soup on March 6, 2016 in West Hollywood, California.
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Would Alta be Alta without independent bookstores? So much of our desire to celebrate great writing comes from the new discoveries we’re constantly making in our local bookshops. That’s why we’re particularly excited about Independent Bookstore Day, taking place this weekend across the country. And we’re not alone. Despite the rise of online shopping, mega-bookstores, and e-books, the number of independent booksellers in the U.S. reached 2,470 last year, a 49 percent increase since 2009. This growth is likely due to consumers’ desires for three things they can’t get online or in a big box outlet: curated offerings, knowledgeable staff, and live events.

Some independent bookstores distinguish themselves by specializing in specific categories of content, as Gustavo Arellano found at Santa Ana’s Libromobile. Run by Sarah Rafael García, the Libromobile stocks Spanish-language and Latin American literature and history books—and began as a planter cart parked on Santa Ana sidewalks. García’s Libromobile has grown into a vital community hub: a spot for author events and open mic nights.

The planter cart that served as the first version of Sarah Rafael Garcia’s LibroMobile.
The planter cart that served as the first version of Sarah Rafael Garcia’s LibroMobile.

In his publisher’s note in the most recent issue of Alta, Will Hearst described our partnerships with four California booksellers: Book Passage and Books Inc. in the Bay Area and Vroman’s Bookstore and Book Soup in Los Angeles. In addition to hosting events with them, we publish their recommendations at Alta Online. And bookstore staff recommendations have become so popular that some sellers are spreading the knowledge from handwritten index cards on bookshelves to the masses on social media. (Portland, Oregon’s Powell’s Books does this really well.)

Live events further cement the role of bookshops as cultural hotspots within their communities.e Many, including the booksellers we partner with, host hundreds of events a year, including author discussions, book signings, comedy nights, children’s story time, book clubs, food and wine events, and classes. Bookstore-centric festivals like San Francisco’s LitQuake bring younger audiences into bookstore spaces, and big-name authors like Dave Eggers and Tommy Orange can often be found reading at indie bookstores.

“I’ve been published long before there [was] any Amazon, before there were any digital books,” Bosch series author Michael Connelly told Alta in 2017. “And the base of my success took bookstores and people like [Book Passage owner] Bill [Petrocelli] to put my books in people’s hands and say, ‘You’ve got to read this guy.’ That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in a digital bookstore.”

“Bookstores are as much a part of the culture as books themselves,” says Petrocelli. “All across the country, when Americans want to share ideas, meet authors, and gain inspiration about life, they gather in independent bookstores.”

This Saturday, April 27, will mark the fifth annual Independent Bookstore Day. Throughout the country, hundreds of independent bookshops will offer events, treats, exclusive merchandise, live music, and more. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find at Alta’s bookstore partners this weekend:

Vroman’s: Appearances by cookbook authors Marge Perry and David Bonom and Hey, Water! author Antoinette Portis, exclusive Independent Bookstore Day merchandise like What to Eat with What You Read, a bookstore scavenger hunt, and a Seuss-a-bration Story Time.

Book Passage: Meet and greets with Ruth Asawa: A Sculpting Lifeauthor Joan Schoettler, The Honey Bus author Meredith May, and novelist Rachel Howzell Hall; wine and treats with local authors at the Sausalito store; and an Independent Bookstore Day reception with artist Calvin Crosby in Corte Madera.

Book Soup: A Well-Read Black Girl Meet-Up, a book signing with Falterauthor Bill McKibben, limited-edition indie bookstore swag, and free audiobooks.

Books Inc.: Performances by the Young Performers Theatre; meet and greets with Silicon Valley historian Leslie Berlin, cookbook author Lisa Prince Newman, and novelist Mike Chen; and a one-day opportunity to purchase treasures like a James Baldwin Literary Luminary pin and a signed copy of Roz Chast’s Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It?

A shorter version of this article appeared in Alta‘s Thursday, April 25, 2019 newsletter

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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