By HILLEL ITALIE AP National Writer
Near the end of 2021, Jessica Callahan was living in Columbus, Ohio, working as a social science researcher and wondering if there was a better way to support herself. Her friends Julie Ross and Austin Carter had similar thoughts and a similar solution: Open a bookstore.
“I think a lot of people re-evaluated what was important to them during the lockdown and we realized the place we were always happy to be at was a bookstore,” says the 30-year-old Callahan, who with Ross and Carter last year founded the Pocket Books Shop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, close to Carter’s hometown. The roughly 1,000-square foot store is located on the main floor of a Queen Anne style house where Callahan and Ross live upstairs.
“We looked at our lives and thought, ‘Why not?’ Nothing else felt guaranteed anymore so why not just try to be happy,” she added. “We’re not getting rich from this, but we’re able to pay our bills and pay ourselves.”
The new direction of the Pocket Books owners helped lead to another year of growth for independent sellers, with membership in the American Booksellers Association reaching its highest levels in more than 20 years. The ABA added 173 members last year, and now has 2,185 bookstore businesses and 2,599 locations. Three years after the pandemic shut down most of the physical bookstores in the U.S. and the independent community feared hundreds might close permanently, the ABA has nearly 300 more members (under stricter rules for membership) than it did in 2019, the last full year before the spread of COVID-19.
“It speaks to a sea change coming out of the pandemic,” says Allison Hill, CEO of the trade association, citing an overall rise in book sales as people spent more time at home.
One longtime ABA member, Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables and other Florida locations, says business has been strong the past couple of years and the customers have been younger, in their teens and 20s. Some are seeking books by Colleen Hoover, Emily Henry and others popular on TikTok, but many are anxious to buy other works.
“I feel like young people are re-discovering the bookstore and the importance of community after being locked down,” he says. “And you’re seeing interest across the board. The other day I had a young person come in who was interested in short stories and wanted to buy a book of Chekhov.”
This summer, 32-year-old Paullina Mills of Perry, Iowa, plans to open Century Farm Books & Brews, and have it live up to its name as a gathering place for drinks and books and bookish conversations.
“I wanted a place where people would come and get a glass of wine and maybe have a book club,” she says. “I think in general we have missed personal connections (during the pandemic) and this seems like a great way to fill a hole in our community. It seemed like a pipe dream at first, but then I found a building and it was like, ‘OK, I’m going to jump in headfirst and see how it goes.”