Above: Challenge Program Executive Director Andrew McKnight says learning trade skills is just the beginning for many of his students.
By Bob Yearick
Selling books for a living is not for the weak-willed. But, if you love books, and if your dream is to spend your workday surrounded by them and by others who love them, you find a way.
That seems to be the credo of the area’s independent bookstore owners, a small, determined group that is dominated by women, including women of color. And although there may be no yachts or McMansions in their immediate futures, these entrepreneurs are making a living while serving their sometimes disparate communities.
The local scene also reflects a national picture that shows the independent bookseller is surviving and in some cases thriving despite presumably overwhelming competition from industry giants Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In their battle with those Goliaths, the indies’ slingshots are loaded with not-so-secret weapons: personal service and, in some cases, events.
The entire book industry was traumatized by the debut in 1995 of Amazon.com. Enticed by that technology giant, Americans abandoned bookstores and stayed home, buying their reading material online and leading many analysts to predict that Jeff Bezos’ creation would eat the mom-and-pop sector’s lunch.
But the indies proved resilient, and by 2009 had staged a comeback. Between that year and 2018, their numbers grew 49%, from 1,651 stores to 2,470.
By 2019, there were 2,524 independent bookstores — an all-time high. Then came the pandemic — the watershed event by which almost all industries are now measured — and the number dropped to 2,100 in 2021. But, aided by Gen Z, many of whom have eschewed e-books in favor of print versions, the segment again bounced back, registering a total of 2,506 stores last year.
Once the pandemic dust had settled, James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble, sat down for a December 2022 interview with Yahoo! Finance and made two cogent observations about why both the behemoths and the indies had weathered the pandemic rather well.
First, he had this take on COVID-19: “Though we were rather terrified when it struck and our stores were closed, it actually turned out to be a fantastic thing for booksellers. People rediscovered reading. Lots, lots more people buying books, and more importantly from our perspective, doing so in bookstores, and our sales have boomed since.”
Then, contrary to the widespread belief that social media was killing reading, Daunt uttered this stunner: “No, social media has been our great friend.
Instagram causes people to pour into our bookstores. BookTok, part of TikTok, has been sensational. Posts that have appeared on that have been seen millions and millions of times and actually driven the sales of literally hundreds of thousands of copies of individual titles. So it’s been a fantastic boon to bookstores.”
Daunt is understandably sanguine about the industry since his company has a 17% share of the market, while Amazon has 23%. That leaves everyone else, including those 2,506 indies, scratching and clawing for the remaining 60%.
Formula for Success
Successful independent bookstore owners, according to a recent study by Ryan Raffaelli, a Ph.D. in the Harvard Business School, follow a formula he calls “the three Cs”:
1. Community: Owners promote the idea of consumers supporting their local communities by shopping at neighborhood businesses.
2. Curation: Owners focus on curating inventory that allows them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience.
3. Convening: Owners promote their stores as intellectual centers for convening customers with likeminded interests, offering lectures, book signings, game nights, children’s story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties. Some bookstores routinely host more than 500 events a year.
Wilmington area booksellers, while giving some attention to Community, have homed in on Nos. 2 and 3 — Curation and Convening — in their efforts to prosper. And nowhere is that more evident than at Hockessin BookShelf, arguably the area’s reigning heavyweight, at least since the demise of Wilmington’s Ninth Street Bookshop in January of 2018.
Jen Blab took over the Lancaster Pike business last November from long-time owner Rebecca Dowling, who moved to California. An Alabama native, Blab and her family have lived in Kennett Square since 2004. She has worked in bookstores and libraries her whole life, and she and her two children were frequent visitors to the Hockessin store.
“I loved it and I wanted to keep it open,” she says.
Three part-time employees help her run a 900-square-foot space that is packed with new and used books and is the site of scores of events. On Thursday, Nov. 2, for instance, the store will host a conversation between Cynthia Newberry Martin, author of Love Like This and two other novels, and past Delaware Poet Laureate JoAnn Balingit. On Saturday, Nov. 18, the monthly Local Author Showcase will feature Kasey Fallon and Dave Stockar.
The store sponsors two book clubs: Eat Drink Read, which meets monthly at a local restaurant or café, and Mystery Lovers Book Club, whose members gather once a month at the store. Blab leads and chooses the books for both clubs.
Hockessin BookShelf has developed an extensive and loyal customer base since its inception, and, unlike other independents in the area, it’s open seven days a week.
“Business has been really good,” Blab says. “A lot of people want to support independent bookstores.”
Claymont’s Miss Em
Local support has been the lifeblood for Emlyn DeGannes’ MeJah Books, which is nestled in a strip mall at 2083 Philadelphia Pike. Known as “Miss Em” to her customers, the native of Trinidad and Tobago has been serving the Claymont area since 1998, beginning in the now defunct Tri-State Mall.
DeGannes, a published author, mentor and speaker who lives in Wilmington, says she has “a passion for books.”
“And I have a love for Claymont because I lived here for so many years when I first moved from New York,” she adds. “I know the community well, I know the children well; I’ve watched them grow up, I know their families. It’s been an honor to serve the community.”
MeJah (formed from the first letter of the names of DeGannes’ family members) features books by what she calls “authors from the African diaspora” — the worldwide collection of communities descended from Native Africans or people from Africa, predominantly located in the Americas.
The store stocks a variety of other items, including jewelry, fabrics and hand-made pieces from Ghana and Kenya, as well as body oils, soaps, and custom T-shirts.
DeGannes, who earned a degree in psychology from City University of New York in 1995, is a firm believer in that third C in Raffaelli’s formula. “What keeps a bookstore alive is events,” she says.
Spurred by that belief, she has turned her shop into a community center. It’s the site of poetry readings, author readings and signings, roundtable discussions, and political gatherings. Last August, Gov. John Carney was at the store with other officials to sign House Bill 205, DE EARNS, which provides all Delaware workers with a simple way to save for the future.
“Owning a bookstore has been a wonderful journey,” says Degannes, “and I’m not exhausted yet.”
Nearby: Miss Connie
A half mile south of MeJah on Philadelphia Pike, in another strip mall, sits Around Again & Again Books. It’s owned and operated by 83-year-old Connie Maglio, who worked part-time at the store’s precursor, Around Again Books, which was located near the Branmar Shopping Center for many years.
When that store closed in 2017, Maglio, who had retired from the freight transportation business, took custody of
the inventory. The next year, thanks to an inheritance from a friend, she opened Around Again & Again Books at the current location.
As its name implies, the shop sells only used books. Maglio doesn’t buy books from customers but offers discounts to those whose contributions she accepts. With only one part-time employee, she inspects and cleans each one herself before putting it on the shelf.
And despite Ryan Raffaelli’s findings and Emlyn DeGannes’ belief in the efficacy of events, Around Again & Again simply sells books. The low prices and the vast selection — Maglio estimates that some 20,000 titles jam the shelves in the 1,300-square-foot space — help attract customers from the tri-state area.
But perhaps the secret sauce in the store’s recipe for success is “Miss Connie” herself. Hers was the busiest store Out & About visited, and each customer greeted her by name. She took the month of September off to recover from illness, and when she announced her comeback, the store’s Facebook page got more than 90 hits.
Maglio says Facebook feedback indicates that her customers are between the ages of 35 and 65 and 80 percent female. “I tell my customers, ‘I need your buddies,’” she says.
Like others in the business, the Philadelphia native found that the pandemic boosted reading. “For a year-and-a-half, it was nonstop,” she says. “Then, in September last year, business dropped by 20 percent.” She theorizes that people spent less time at home reading and “went out, and got back to their normal activities.”
Her illness, and the month-long recovery, was just a temporary setback for the irrepressible Maglio, and she has no plans to retire. “I love books,” she says. “And people.”
The Peripatetic Bookseller
After 44 years, Greg Schauer can lay claim to being the longest-tenured local bookstore owner (Not to mention the only man in a female-dominated market — at least until recently. See below).
In 1979, fresh out of Brandywine High School, and with his father as a partner, Schauer decided to open a store, which he dubbed Between Books. “I thought it would be easier than going to college,” he says.
Easier? Debatable. Challenging? To be sure. That initial location — in a New Castle shopping Center — was the first of five for the peripatetic business — so far. But the 62-year-old Schauer is soldiering on, despite ever-shrinking floor space from which to sell his wares.
Between Books moved to Tri-State Mall in 1980, stayed there for eight years, then moved to a prime spot — Town & Country Shopping Center, on the corner of Harvey Road and Philadelphia Pike in Claymont.
The store did a brisk business there until 2013, when Schauer lost his lease after the space was allocated to another tenant. His father retired, and he took a year-and-half off before finding another spot on Philadelphia Pike across from Holy Rosary School. Then that building was sold, and in 2019 Schauer moved to the Oddporium.
Located on the edge of Arden at the corner of Marsh and Harvey roads, the Oddporium sells, well, oddities, mostly from medical science and the paranormal. Schauer rents about 300 square feet at the back of the store. Chock-a-block with books, the space is just big enough for him and one, perhaps two customers.
“I have a pretty good following,” Schauer says, noting that most of his customers are fans of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. “I can’t compete on price, but I can compete on knowledge. Once I get to know somebody, it’s very easy to recommend books that they’ll like. I also carry the good books that everybody else forgets about – a lot of small presses.”
In his old store, he stocked board games, role-playing games, and other items. “We did a lot of signings, a lot of community events, even tutoring – in math and physics, a little bit of English,” he says. “I’m going to try to put that back together.”
Sitting on the steps of the Oddporium, smoking his pipe, Schauer says, “Business is almost by appointment now. But that will change. I’m in the process of moving into larger quarters.”
He lives in Claymont and would like to find a spot for his store there. His goal is to turn Between Books into a community-owned enterprise. He’s done some research on the subject, and says he needs to change the business structure and raise the necessary funds by the end of the year — hopefully by selling stock, not borrowing from a bank.
“I’m trying to do it without going into debt,” he says. “Right now I’m waiting for some answers from the IRS, and they are glacially slow.”
Taking another pull on his pipe, he adds, “I’m looking at my legacy. I won’t be around forever.”
The Neighborhood Store
At the opposite end of the longevity scale is Ellen Cappard, now in her second year as the owner of Books & Bagels. Located in the heart of Wilmington, at the corner of Seventh and Harrison streets, it is “Wilmington’s new neighborhood bookstore,” according to the website.
Cappard, an eight-year Air Force veteran, was an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C., before moving to the Little Italy neighborhood in 2017. When she and her 14-year-old daughter, both avid book readers, began exploring the city, they were disappointed to find that Ninth Street was the only local bookstore.
“In Washington,” Cappard says, “there’s a bookstore on almost every block. In fact, they even have a bookstore crawl there.”
When Ninth Street closed, the single mother became determined to fill the literary void. She joined Launcher, a 12-week program that helps entrepreneurs build business plans following foundational business operation lessons. After graduation, they receive one-on-one support from program mentors. To date, Launcher has graduated almost 800 entrepreneurs who have opened some 300 businesses and created nearly 600 jobs statewide. (The application window for Launcher’s spring cohort that begins in February is currently open at launcherde.org.)
Opening any business in the midst of a pandemic is challenging, even counter-intuitive, but, says Cappard, “People needed space to commune that wasn’t school or work. They were looking for outlets, and there were very few places you could go and just have a relaxed experience.”
Cappard has made Books & Bagels work with a creative mix of books — with an emphasis on African American authors — and myriad activities and services (although there are no bagels yet). She has hosted multiple pop-ups with small businesses and partnered with others, such as Barking Dog Farm PA, of Kennett Square, which sells produce that is chemical- and pesticide-free. Her store is a drop-off spot for the farm.
Her 650-square-foot space has been the site of what she calls “events that speak to the community,” including “healing events,” such as poetry workshops, following COVID. More recently, discussions have turned to the more practical aspects of life, and there are now weekly “Money Mindset” sessions. November will bring a letter-writing workshop.
A graduate of the Art Institute of Philadelphia, the indefatigable Cappard stocks some of her own artwork, including holiday cards, curates book lists for various groups, writes two blogs, and has just written, illustrated, and published a children’s book, Something New Grows.
But most important, this entrepreneur is fulfilling the mission she sees for her business: “Independent bookstores are unique in that they really serve the community that they’re in.”
While other area stores have their specialties, none is quite as specialized as Angel Crossing, at 550 S. Colonial Ave. in Elsmere. The store sells only items related to the Roman Catholic faith — Bibles, statues, rosaries, videos, pictures, music, medals, and cards.
Michele Lennon has owned the family enterprise for 25 years. She says business is good, adding, “We have a lot of long-time customers.”
She too found that the pandemic helped sales. “More people turned towards God during that time,” Lennon says. “We weren’t open, but people would call us and we did house calls, or they would drive here and we would meet them outside the store.”
Like some other area booksellers, Angel Crossing does not hold events, but at least two area stores have scheduled events in November. For information check these websites:
New Kid on the Block
Late last month, Wilmington welcomed its first downtown bookstore since Ninth Street Books closed almost six years ago. Huxley & Hiro Booksellers, owned by Ryan Eanes and Claire van den Broek, opened its doors at 419 N. Market St. on Oct. 27.
Eanes is a professor of advertising at Temple University who lived in Wilmington for several years. A linguist, literary translator and adjunct professor of literature, van den Broek is from the Netherlands. The business partners and friends will be living above the store in separate apartments.
Huxley & Hiro (named after the owners’ pets) stocks a wide selection of new book titles, with an emphasis on local literature. “We want to offer a representative selection of authors who we hope will appeal to Wilmington’s diverse population, such as the African American and LGBT members of our community,” van den Broek says.
The store also sells art and gifts, including locally made jewelry and other items.
Huxley & Hiro has a B Corp certification, meaning it meets high standards of performance, accountability, and transparency, including social and environmental issues.
“Our mission is to serve and support the community,” van den Broek says. “We are not focused on making a profit; instead, we hope to create new jobs, highlight local arts and crafts, and offer our space to local non-profit organizations.”
The store already has partnered with the Brandywine Zoo and the Delaware Historical Society for events.
“We’re also seeking out independent vendors such as minority owned businesses with a charitable mission,” van den Broek says.
Store hours are: Wednesday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thursday, 10-9; Friday, 10-8; Saturday, 12-8, and Sunday, 12-5. It is closed on Monday and Tuesday.