On a cool, clear, Wednesday evening, a group of women who get together monthly to read and critique children’s and young adult books meet in the outdoor café area of the Blue Bunny Book store in Dedham. They listen attentively as one member, a third-grade teacher from Brookline, recommends the kinds of illustrated books that most appeal to third and fourth graders. 

On the next Sunday evening, about a dozen writers meet inside the same bookstore to talk about craft and get advice from an already published author. Every Friday morning, the bookstore gives away free copies of The Dedham Times, both to support local journalism and to draw as many as twenty people who come to discuss the week’s events. And every day in warmer months, a community piano invites anyone passing by Dedham Square to stop and play a tune. 

The COVID-19 lockdown that once threatened to put bookshops—along with other local retailers—out of business instead created a new thirst for what bookstores have become, a hub of community engagement that goes beyond author signings and children’s story hours. These independents are enjoying an unexpected boom, both nationally and in New England. 

“During COVID we had two years where technology was a lifeline, but many people lived in little bubbles,” says Peter Reynolds, the children’s book author who owns The Blue Bunny bookstore. “The good news is, people were crazy to have real conversations and a bookshop café is a wonderful place to gather.” 

Even before COVID, independent bookstores were becoming increasingly community-oriented as an essential part of competing, first with big box stores, then with Amazon. During the lockdown, most were forced to pivot to online sales to survive and in the process broadened their reach.

For example, Porter Square Books, in Cambridge and now in Boston’s Seaport, has “come back in a new way,” outpacing 2019 sales, says, co-owner Ellen Jarrett.

In addition to twice or thrice weekly author signings, and childrens’ story hours, Porter Square Books brought back its popular “Be the Change,” program, which partners with a local nonprofit, to encourage residents not to just come discuss, but act locally on issues like homelessness, women’s rights and healthcare, Jarrett says. 

Steve Iwanski owner and founder of Charter Books in Newport explains the resurgence of independents this way:  After a horrible few years of forced isolation, “people came out of it with a renewed appreciation for the community that had always been there. 

Although Charter Books didn’t open its doors until 2021, it had been in the works before COVID struck and because of the lockdown began with online sales. Iwanski says that local bookstores like his benefited by Amazon’s lockdown decision to deem books as nonessential items, which meant delivery could take six to eight weeks. “People turned around and saw their local bookstore had books there for sale.” 

His store took that opportunity to provide local delivery of books the same day. 

During COVID, the community-oriented impulse that had residents ordering takeout to support local restaurants wound up helping bookstores. “In Newport, everyone came out of the pandemic with a preference for local business. We all turned around and saw all this stuff in our town that we want to support,” Iwanski says.

That support goes both ways. Charter Books’s first move was to team up with local nonprofits like The Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center, a food kitchen and multi-service provider, and The Potter League for Animals, an animal rescue center in nearby Middletown. Book drives and author events that donated a portion of the sales helped benefit the nonprofits’ missions while helping to get the new bookstore’s name out there.  Once the shop opened at its 8 Broadway location, book groups began meeting inside. A successful holiday book fair held last season for one of the local schools will likely be repeated this year.

Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Bookstore Association (NEIBA), says that while the past two and a half years “tested every piece of the independent bookstore business model,” the majority of member stores not only survived, but “a good number of them have thrived, seeing a marked increase in business volume in 2020 and 2021.” 

The national trade group for independent stores, the American Book Association reported an increase of 1,689 members stores between July 2020, and June 2022, according to The New York Times.

Jan Brogan has been a journalist for more than thirty years, working as a correspondent for the Boston Globe, a staff writer for the Worcester Telegram and the Providence Journal, where she won the Gerald Loeb award for distinguished business writing. She is the award-winning author of four mysteries, Final Copy, Confidential SourceYesterday’s Fatal, and Teaser. She grew up in Clifton, New Jersey, and moved to New England to study journalism at Boston University. She holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She continues to work as a novelist and a journalist, and she teaches writing at the Boston University Summer Journalism Institute. 

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Jan Brogan

Jan Brogan has been a journalist for more than thirty years, working as a correspondent for the Boston Globe, a staff writer for the Worcester Telegram and the Providence Journal, where she won the Gerald Loeb award for distinguished business writing. She is the award-winning author of four mysteries, Final Copy, Confidential Source, Yesterday’s Fatal, and Teaser. She grew up in Clifton, New Jersey, and moved to New England to study journalism at Boston University. She holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She continues to work as a novelist and a journalist, and she teaches writing at the Boston University Summer Journalism Institute.