For bookstore owners, it pays to put the “local” in “locally owned.”
In the age of smartphones and screens, it may seem unlikely that independent bookstores would stand a chance. Indeed, in order to survive, these bookstores have to be more than just a place to pick up a celebrated classic or a hot bestseller – although, of course, they still serve that purpose too.
“You have to be innovative,” said Cindy Dach, co-owner and general manager of Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix. “And every day, we always have to ask the question if we’re being innovative enough.”
Dach, who started working at Changing Hands in 2000, also emphasizes the importance of integrating with the community.
“It always feels like we’re skating on thin ice. It always does, and that feeling won’t probably ever go away,” Dach said. “But where success has been is being relevant to our communities, being in touch to our communities, listening.”
Dach also emphasizes the value in coordinating and hosting community events.
“Events are important because they keep us relevant. They keep us in the press, for example,” she said. “But we also work with our local communities by having events that speak to that community.
“I think we do a good job of cultivating a long-term relationship with the kids that become readers,” Dach added. “I think, yes, some of them sometimes buy on Amazon because of the price thing, but they’re not going to meet the authors on Amazon, and they’re not going to meet other kids who read books on Amazon.”
Amelia Barbee, a sophomore studying creative writing at Arizona State University, reiterates the value of such events.
“I really value local businesses, especially bookstores,” Barbee said. “Going to Changing Hands for an author event was really cool, and I loved their general vibe. You can’t really get that kind of thing from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, honestly.”
Dach says that staying innovative is a demanding yet worthwhile task, one that keeps Changing Hands alive.
“You open the doors and get everybody in their stations, and you start working and you shelve the books, which seems like what you would do every day, which is 100 percent of your energy,” Dach explained. “Then you have to find another 100 percent to say, ‘How do I stay relevant?’ and ‘How do I stay innovative?’ and ‘How do I get people to want to be here?’ And we try to answer those questions every single day.”
“I think the answers are reflected in our programs, in how we pick merchandise for our store, the nonprofits that we represent,” Dach added.
Aaron Hopkins-Johnson, owner of Lawn Gnome Publishing, agrees. While Lawn Gnome no longer has a physical location, having closed its Phoenix location in April, Hopkins-Johnson continues to operate the business as an online used bookstore, publishing house and literary event organizer.
Hopkins-Johnson also emphasized the importance of adapting, saying that closing his physical business allowed him to focus his resources on tasks like listing books online, forging lasting partnerships and scheduling events with strong turnouts.
While managing a bookstore is no easy feat, these business owners remain motivated by their passion for literature, the arts and their communities.
“What we lacked in experience and capital, we made up for in quirky gumption and vision and tireless, hungry hours,” Hopkins-Johnson said.
“Selling books and hosting events is my passion, and it is all I think about,” Hopkins-Johnson added, acknowledging that Lawn Gnome may reopen in the future.
Dach maintains a similar passion for her work.
“It’s just a pleasure and an honor to work with books every day, and be surrounded by a community that loves books every day, and work with people that love books every day,” Dach said. “We believe that books can change lives, so being surrounded in that atmosphere every day is just hopeful and a reason to get up in the morning.”