The strip mall parking lot’s yellow lights are the first greeting on the way to Imagine Books and Records. Tucked between a San Antonio city councilman’s office and an intimate goods store, the small shop can be difficult to spot.
But on a typical Friday night, you don’t have to rely on vision – you can hear it. If the young people spilling out the store’s front door doesn’t tip you off, then the rock’n’roll echoing out should erase all doubt – this is where it’s all happening.
Don Hurd is Imagine’s owner.
“We call ourselves the loudest bookstore in Texas,” he says.
It’s a counter-culture bookstore by day, but by night, it turns into a music venue for up-and-coming bands and a haven for San Antonio’s burgeoning youth culture.
Amazon and e-books have made bookstores seem like somewhat of an anomaly. In fact, just a few years ago, when Borders Bookstore closed, industry analysts and book-buyers testified that it was the “end of print.” But independent bookstores like Imagine have been multiplying and enjoying a strong growth in sales. The American Bookseller Association reports independent bookstore sales were up 10 percent last year.
Publishers Weekly bookselling editor Judith Rosen says Texas’ wide literary landscape is part of that.
“Texas is a really vibrant bookselling area and it has some of the strongest indies,” Rosen says.
Rosen says a number of factors contribute to the rise of indies. A trend toward buying and supporting local businesses gave indie bookstores a bump. Then the closure of big box stores like Crown Books and Borders created a vacuum indies could fill. That even helped Hurd start his business.
“Our shelving all came from Borders,” Hurd says. “We were opening the store when Borders declared bankruptcy, and so we bought all of our shelving and some of our furniture there.”
The rise of social media also helped these stores cast a wider net and made them easier to discover.
Benjamin Rybeck is the marketing director for Brazos Bookstore, the vanguard of Houston’s literary scene.
“Communities are increasingly reached through online means, and you see the way communities connect themselves through social media,” Rybeck says. “So using social media is a key way of us connecting with Houston’s readers.”
Though social media has helped indies in recent years, the rise of the internet was not easy, as Gayle Harris knows. She owns Books and Crannies in Terrell, an indie bookstore run out of an old movie theater.
“There was obviously kind of a downturn, I think for most independent booksellers, because it was new to people,” Harris says. “They could go online and find what they were looking for. There was a lot of internet shopping that started up. Then when the Kindle came out, that hurt for a while. But it appears to me that, over the last, I’d say, year and a half, it’s been picking back up.”
Like Hurd’s store-by-day, venue-by-night, Harris also diversified her business.
“Several years ago I bought a little ladies consignment shop that was going out of business,” she says. “So we took a corner of the bookstore and turned it into a resale consignment shop called Silhouette.”
Judith Rosen says this isn’t unique. It’s hard to make it exclusively selling books.
“There are a number of bookstore-coffee shops. There’s family-owned bookstores, like Twig bookshop in San Antonio,” Rosen says. “They’re very much part of the indie revival that’s been talked about in the past few years.”
And indies have one clear advantage – their appeal to niche audiences. Most indie stores are specialized, like Rybeck’s highbrow literary space or Hurd’s counter-culture store.
“For Brazos, we want to push our quirkiness, as a staff,” Rybeck says. “We want to push the things that we are very interested in and passionate about because that is the thing that you can’t get from an Amazon.com or a Barnes and Noble.”
“Community is what it’s all about for us,” Hurd says. “I think that’s probably true in varying ways in independent bookstores. Like, they might have book clubs all the time, or cater to kids. They’re going to find a way to connect to people that makes it more than a shop-customer relationship.”
Despite the growth, bookselling is not an easy gig. Hurd took a large pay cut to go from teaching to running Imagine. He’s in the store every day – which he loves – but he says his family had to adjust to consuming a lot less.
“You definitely have to have a passion, and if you don’t have that, you’ll probably leave,” he says. “You can make more money doing most anything. It’s true. But it’s not just about money.”
Still, Rosen predicts Texas – and the country – will continue to see independent bookstores grow. If it’s not the passion of booksellers, Harris says perhaps it’s just the books.
“Well to me, there’s something magical about holding a book in your hands and seeing the story unfold in front of you,” Harris says. “And I don’t think you can get that on a computer screen.”