Inside Indie Bookstores: A Literary Insurrection

By pranav thurgam

In 2009, professionals predicted the death of Independent “Indie” Bookstores across the nation. The rise in superstores and big-book chains foretold the eventual demise of such unconventional small-businesses.

Yet, the outcomes were not all that was expected. In the past 12 years, Indie Bookstores across the nation have bounced back – even during the tumultuous pandemic era.

Flashlight Bookstore Co-Owner Shoshana Smith provides insight into this astonishing upturn for book sellers. Reporter Pranav Thurgam talked with Smith about the role of Indie Bookstores on communities and society as a whole. 


This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Pranav Thurgam: In 2009 membership in the American Booksellers Association declined to one of its all-time lows. Yet, since then, the amount of Indie bookstores have rapidly bounced back. Why do you think this would be, and how has it been represented in your business? 

Shoshana Smith: So, 2009 is slightly before I got into the bookselling business. That said, when I did get into it, around 2011-2012 , people were still talking about everything that led to that decline. 

I genuinely believe that books are one of those things that will never actually die. People have predicted the death of the book industry so many times over history and it never actually happens – I think it ebbs and flows. After 2009, as people became aware of the effect that big box stores, like Barnes Noble and Walmart, were having on communities, it’s sort of where the shop local movement came in. People realized that, if you want to be able to walk to your downtown, and have stores and have a community there, you have to spend your money there.

PT: As you were saying, it’s the community coming together to frequent local businesses. But, other than that, the book stores themselves have also adapted over this time period. Have the three C’s, of community, curation, and convening, played a part in your book store?

SS: Hugely, and those are the foundation of how bookstores have adapted. You’re not going to survive if all you are is a business front, full of books, and you sell those books. That’s great, but you also have to have events and community outreach. A lot of people come to our store because we have books focused on things that you don’t find, or that’s harder to find in a Barnes & Noble. We focus really hard on having as much representation as we can in having displays – that are curated to current, seasonal events. If we’re carrying a book as much as possible, we try for it to be something that focuses on community. 

PT: How do you think those around you, in your community, have changed since Flashlight books was established?

SS: I like to think that they’ve found a safe, positive place where they can spend time and feel welcome. [After] home [and] school/work, bookstores can be a third place where you’re safe and welcome. Though we’re too new to have changed any fundamental structure of the community, I like to think that we’ve created a new place that people enjoy.

PT: I definitely agree. Indie bookstores are a place where like minded people can come together and interact, share their opinions, and do it in a comfortable  environment. 

What would you tell the youth of today, who are members of a generation exhibiting increasingly diminished interest in literature?

SS: I think that reading fosters empathy, in a way that no other media does. More than ever, it’s important to read literature by people who look different than you, live differently than you, grew up in different circumstances than you – in the attempt to fully experience at least as much as you can, learning how other people live and how they experience the world. But also, it’s fun.  It’s enjoyable. There’s no battery that runs out, and it just can transport you completely.

PT: Just as a reflection, what has been your most rewarding experience as an indie bookstore owner. 

SS: I mean, I don’t think there’s even one particular experience. It’s [more] the moment when kids come in, whether it’s a little kid or middle school [child] and they turn to their parents and they’re like, oh my God, this is the best place ever. In that moment, we’re just like we did it. That’s what we came here to do. We came to be the space so that reading can be like a positive, rewarding thing. It’s really that simple. It’s just when the kids come in and are excited. 

PT: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. In the world where Amazon and Barnes Nobles are dominating the market. It’s sort of hard to outsell them, yet what really brings back customers each time is a sense of community.

SS: Yes, it’s the sense of community and it’s also the sense that we care. If I hear about what someone likes, I pick out a book specifically for them and tell them about it. That’s not what Amazon is doing. Amazon has algorithms and they don’t actually know the books themselves. Whereas we just want to provide our community with the best experience possible. 

PT: Especially during Covid, which I know has been a large majority of your time as a bookstore owner, what is the future path going forwards? 

SS: Sales are going back up. We’re not where we were, but we’re going in the direction. We’re hoping to bring events, at least small events, back by fall. Eventually, we want to be back where we were –  bringing authors to schools and hosting regular events, and book clubs. But now, our highest priority is  furthering the idea of a safe space. Not just an ideological safe space, but a physically safe space. So many of our customers are kids, and vaccines have not been fully approved for kids yet. Going back to normal is going to be a slow build for us, but we’re just going to keep going the way we are. 

PT: Definitely, I wish you good luck.

SS: Thank you.

Image Credit: Alamy