In September, Dawn Fair did something no one had done in Delaware’s Kent County for more than four years: She turned on the lights, and opened a bookstore.
It had been her dream all her adult life to open a bookshop, said Fair — a plan that became reality after the pandemic gave her the spur she needed to change careers. When she opened the doors of Dawn’s Books and Stuff, she found a literary populace quite eager to see her.
“They were all happy that there’s finally a bookstore in Dover,” she said. “The closest store was a Barnes & Noble in Christiana,” she said, a 40 minute drive on a good day.
During the intervening span, Kent had effectively been a dry county, at least where bookstores was concerned. The last full-service bookshop, Acorn Books in Smyrna, had gone away in May of 2019.
Acorn’s owner, Ginny Jewell, told The News Journal a story that had become grimly familiar: Her little shop just couldn’t compete with online sellers like Amazon. Not while paying $40,000 in commercial rent.
The state’s largest city faced a similar situation. After beloved longtime shop Ninth Street Book Shop shut down in 2018, the City of Wilmington was likewise left without a full-service bookseller.
But since the pandemic, there’s been a perhaps surprising resurgence. The local bookstore has come back with a vengeance, not just in Delaware but across the country.
Less than a month after Dawn’s Books and Stuff opened in Dover, an ambitious bookstore called Huxley & Hiro arrived in downtown Wilmington with great pomp and a visit from the mayor.
“There’s something about a bookstore that flies in the face of the idiocy that’s taking place in so many parts of the country these days,” said Wilmington mayor Mike Purzycki at Huxley’s October opening. “A bookstore symbolizes the stretching and enlarging of the American mind and not the constriction of it.”
The surge in bookstores began amid lower rents and higher interest in reading during the pandemic. Huxley co-owner Claire van den Broek believes that people pent up during the pandemic also craved a physical place to go, and that bookstores meet the needs of a young generation tired of spending time trapped at home with screens.
“We think that there’s demand for a space like a bookstore,” she said. “We certainly see among younger generations, like Gen Z, that they’re interested in coming into physical bookstores. … They want a space where they can physically meet, or they can browse. They want that experience that generations before them have had for many years.”
A wave of independent bookstores are opening all over the country
The demise of the corner bookstore was always a little exaggerated, perhaps — even amid the rise of online booksellers such as Amazon.
Multiple used bookstores still dot New Castle County surrounding Wilmington. Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, the state’s oldest independent bookstore, is still going strong after 48 years, recently passing to the shop’s longtime manager, Susan Kehoe.
“The plan is to keep doing what’s always been done,” Kehoe told the Cape Gazette after buying the well-loved bookstore in 2020.
But the years since 2020 have seen a particularly dramatic upswing in brick-and-mortar bookstores, according to figures from the American Booksellers Association, the main trade group for independent bookstores.
Independent shops saw “incredible growth” in 2022, wrote the ABA’s chief executive, Allison Hill, in a report to members at the end of last year.
At least 179 brick-and-mortar independent bookstores opened across the country in 2022, according to the ABA, more than triple the number that closed. The organization’s membership swelled by more than a third since 2019, to about 2,600 bookshops.
Even somewhat less independent booksellers, such as Barnes & Noble, have been on the rebound. In 2018, news agencies openly hypothesized about the chain’s impending doom. Barnes & Noble shed a billion dollars in value, and more than a hundred stores, during the 2010s.
But these days, Barnes & Noble sounds a lot more like the comeback kid. The chain was saved from the brink, in part, by behaving a lot like an independent local bookstore.
In 2019, calling Barnes & Noble’s cookie-cutter approach “crucifyingly boring,” incoming CEO James Daunt threw out the previous corporate playbook entirely. Daunt returned Barnes & Noble’s focus to physical books, and allowed each store manager to set their inventory based on the wishes of local customers.
The finances remain opaque; the chain was bought by private equity firm Elliott Investment Management in 2019. But public signals are promising. For the first time in maybe a decade, the bookstore chain has been expanding. Barnes & Noble plans to open 30 stores in 2023.
Local bookstores embed themselves in their community
The seeds of Huxley & Hiro in Wilmington go back to just before the pandemic, when van den Broek visited her friend, Ryan Eanes, who’d taken a university job in Delaware; he now teaches at Temple University.
She fell in love with Wilmington, but there was something missing. After the closure of Ninth Street Book Shop closed, the two bibliophiles realized that there was a void where bookstores should be. She had degrees in business and literature and a family background in retail; Eanes teaches branding and advertising. It was a match made in bookstore heaven.
But in 2019, after they found the building where the store now sits, at 419 N Market St., the coronavirus pandemic stopped life in its tracks. Huxley & Hiro, named after each of their pets, moved forward only by inches.
In the meantime, another Wilmington bookstore joined the upswell of new independent bookstores. Books & Bagels, a small and bright-walled community cafe and bookstore, opened in 2021 in Wilmington’s Hilltop neighborhood.
The store, owned by educator Ellen Cappard, recently celebrated its two year anniversary and hosts local author readings, workshops on trauma and healing, and small business expos to celebrate Juneteenth.
The two newest bookstores have also quickly embedded themselves in their communities.
Van den Broek and Eanes hand-picked Huxley & Hiro’s store’s sizable selection to cater to tastes both local and personal, with a strong focus on Delaware authors, and events with local and touring authors.
But even within a month of opening, they’ve already changed their store to meet the needs of customers, Professionals and lawyers living at the courthouse or nearby high-rise buildings have flocked to books on technology and finance. Other readers wanted urban and street fiction — gritty stories devoted to the harsh realities that once earned Wilmington the nickname “Murder City, U.S.A.”
A lot of walk-ins wanted Wilmington postcards and mementos; and so the bookstore commissioned an artist to make an art map of Wilmington neighborhoods.
The goal, Van den Broek said, is to create a “representative selection of books that people can identify with,” whether that means Afrofuturism, books on social justice or a broad selection of cryptocurrency tomes.
In Dover, Dawn’s Books and Stuff sells vinyl records to diversify its customer base — banking on another medium once thought defunct. Fair, the owner, brings in a continual supply of used books to supplement her 500 or so new titles.
Lately, she’s found herself catering to a specific set of customers. It turns out, some of the most avid book readers near Dover arrive by horse and buggy.
After Fair’s store participated in an Amish auction in October, the Amish community near Dover became fast regulars. For years, they’d had nowhere nearby to reliably find new books. Now, she endeavors to stock what they’re looking for.
“A lot of Amish customers buy Amish books or westerns…. But sometimes it will be romance or mysteries, or a lot of nonfiction,” she said. “It’s not necessarily what you’d expect.”
Matthew Korfhage is business and development reporter in the Delaware region covering all things related to land and money: openings and closings, construction, and the many corporations who call the First State home. A longtime food writer, he also tends to turn up with stories about tacos, oysters and beer. Send tips and insults to firstname.lastname@example.org.