A decade ago, a wave of independent bookstore obituaries began to pop up in the national news. Greatly admired shops like Cody’s Books in Berkeley, Good Yarns in Hastings-on-Hudson, and Acres of Books in Long Beach all shuttered in 2008. In 2014, The New Yorker reported a more than 50 percent decline in the number of independent bookstores over the past two decades, from about 4,000 stores to fewer than 2,000. After Amazon debuted the Kindle to blockbuster sales in 2007, for some observers of the bookselling business, it really seemed as though independent bookstores were facing a dire future.
But in 2018 Santa Fe, the state of independent bookstores seems much sturdier than many of us anticipated. “It’s actually turned out that the indies have done really well over the last seven or eight years, since the end of the Great Recession,” said John Mutter, the editor-in-chief of the book-industry newsletter Shelf Awareness. “Now most stores that are put up for sale get bought. A lot of indies, especially established indies, have opened up second or third stores.” According to the American Booksellers Association, over the past five years, independent bookstore sales have had a 5.4 percent compound annual growth rate. Part of the reason for independents’ remaining on the scene, Mutter explained, is that “e-books didn’t take off the way a lot of people thought.”
Perhaps no other city can attest to the endurance of independent bookstores quite like Santa Fe. By our count, at least 16 bookstores dot the landscape. There is one for approximately every 5,200 people. That puts Santa Fe not far behind the Associated Press-dubbed “world capital of bookstores,” Buenos Aires, which has one bookstore for about every 4,400 people. And ever since the two Borders locations in town closed in 2011 (the year of the chain’s bankruptcy filing), Santa Febookstores have been exclusively independent.
According to Joan Aon, owner of the spiritually focused bookstore The Ark, “The independent bookstores have made a comeback. It’s really, I think, that people like community and they like personal contact.” Independent bookstores, Aon said, “curate the selection. The community trusts that institution, whether it be a mainstream bookstore or a niche market bookstore, to find really good material, really good authors.” Mutter noted the role of independent bookstores as tastemakers. “They can make a new book and make a new author,” he said. “There’s sort of this ripple effect.”
The Santa Fe book landscape isn’t just well populated and locally shaped. It’s also diverse, with offerings that attest to the breadth of intellectual pursuits among the population and its visitors. Photo-eye Bookstore is known internationally for its photography-book collection. The Ark provides comprehensive offerings on world traditions, self-care, and metaphysics. Readers of comics and graphic novels can browse the stacks at Big Adventure Comics, while those beset by wanderlust can peruse the atlases and maps at Travel Bug. Moviegoers who want to pick up signed copies of books by George R.R. Martin and other authors can visit the small bookstore at the Martin-owned Jean Cocteau Cinema. Santa Fe also boasts the largest Spanish bookstore in the United States, according to owner Jim Dunlap. He said, “We have 80,000 titles in Spanish. That’s 10 times more than the next-largest Spanish-language bookstore.” Allá, just off the Santa Fe Plaza, offers Latin American works in Spanish and Portuguese, many of which ºDunlap collects by traveling to book fairs around Latin America and Spain.
Used bookstores allow Santa Feans to share literary finds and extend the life spans of books. The city’s used bookstores are, again, wide ranging: They include a paperback exchange (Book Mountain), shops focused on antiquarian titles (Dumont Maps & Books of the West, Nicholas Potter Bookseller, Gunstock Hill Books), and stores with broad collections such as Books of Interest and Big Star Books & Music. Some used and antiquarian bookstores straddle the lines between different types of stock. At Gunstock Hill Books on Palace Avenue, owner Henry Lewis curates a selection of well-preserved used and rare editions, many of them with American West themes. Among his collection is a pristine first edition of Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. Op.Cit. Books, in the DeVargas Center, has new, used, and remaindered titles that include collectible first editions. Founder Noemi de Bodisco described moving from online-only book sales into brick-and-mortar stores in 2011. In addition to Op.Cit., she also owns Op.Cit. Taos and Tome on the Range in Las Vegas. Today, she said, most of the stores’ sales are offline — a trajectory that is the opposite of what seemed to be the forecast a decade ago. Lillian Schmid of Big Star Books & Music described a comfortable cohabitation among physical stores and e-commerce. “A lot of times, people will come in and say, I have an e-version of this, but I actually want the physical copy, too,” Schmid said.
Many of the city’s bookstores have deep roots in the community. Books of Interest, for instance, has been around for 30 years, while Allá was founded in 1980. One of the newer additions to the scene is Bee Hive, the city’s only bookstore dedicated entirely to children’s books. Christian Nardi founded the shop more than six years ago, seeing an opportunity at around the same time that de Bodisco did. Nardi said, “Borders had left town, and it just felt like there was a need for a place where families and kids could specifically buy kids’ books.”
So how did Santa Fe become a bookselling hub? Though tourism certainly helps sales, particularly in areas with higher foot traffic, Santa Fe’s residents are integral to determining the nature and scope of the city’s bookstore scene. Jean Devine, who acquired Garcia Street Books last June, said, “I believe that this bookstore and the way we’re selecting the content is a reflection of the Santa Fe community in general, which is all about creativity and artistic expression and cultural freedom.” Devine said she is the fifth owner of Garcia Street Books, which has been in business for about 25 years. Dorothy Massey, the owner of Collected Works Bookstore for 23 of its nearly 40 years in business, also noted the importance of local patrons. “While we welcome the summer visitors, the holiday visitors, and the first-time visitors with open arms, we really also depend very much on our locals, who shop here despite the temptations and the enticements to shop the internet. We have many people who actually do research on the internet and then come in and order their books here, which is lovely.”
Even with a solid literary clientele, bookstores in the age of Amazon must often take deliberate steps to distinguish themselves from one-click book-buying. Photo-eye has both a bookstore and an art gallery for contemporary photography. Aon described making a choice, about 10 years ago, to sell more gift items and other merchandise at The Ark; the bookstore, like several others in town, now offers a variety of non-book items such as crystals and jewelry. Retail sales are only a portion of Allá’s business model. “If it were books alone, we probably wouldn’t be here,” Dunlap said, explaining that the business supplies books to university libraries and sells Latin-American music and art, including works by the preeminent Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. The bookstore’s unique model allows it to avoid the usual retail trappings: Allá is the rare store without a website.
Garcia Street Books’ innovation proves that even small choices can have big effects. All the store’s book covers face outward, rather than having spines greet browsers. Devine said of the shop’s display technique, “When I come in, I get inspired to read something new and something different that I wouldn’t have picked up.” The element of discoverability is a key feature that sets bookstores apart from online book-buying. To experience the sense of discovery that is one of the great joys of reading itself, physical spaces are incomparable.
For many local bookstores, a significant component of creating a distinction from virtual bookselling spaces comes from hosting events, such as readings and book signings, relating back to the role of bookstores as creative centers. Op.Cit.’s de Bodisco said that events can actually be disruptive for sales, but because they benefit the community and give local and traveling authors exposure and the chance to engage with one another, they are an important thing for stores to do.
Of course, nothing is ever truly certain in business. It would be foolish to ignore the presence of Amazon, which recently rose to the rank of world’s third-most valuable company. But the overall sense among Santa Fe’s bookstore owners is that business is good, and the joys of what they do seem to far outweigh the worries. “I think we’re going to survive and thrive, and I think you’ll see more,” Devine said of independent bookstores. “You do have to have the right community for it.” Expressing what seems to be a universal sentiment among local bookstore owners, Santa Fe’s support for their business model is, she added, “a pretty special thing.” ◀