Thriving Underdogs: How Independent Bookstores Are Building Community in the Digital Age

Vancouver’s independent bookstores are offering a refreshing change of pace

Gwen Pemberton (she/her) // Arts & Culture Editor
Megan Barry // Illustrator

A bell dings softly as the door to Companion Books swings open, and Simona Powell looks up from her computer at the front desk. A gentle smile spreads across her face as she greets the new arrival. A middle-aged man in glasses and a well-loved green sweater enters, looking for a book, but all he has to go on is the author’s name. 

After a few well chosen questions, Powell sets off down one of the aisles with the customer in tow, her eyes combing the spines with practiced precision. In no time at all they are back at the register, book in hand. The conversation eases into a comfortable flow. Powell laughs appreciatively. The bespectacled man, now with his newly purchased novel, is ready to head out. “Nice talking to you,” he says as he steps outside.

This is how things proceed at this small independent bookstore on the corner of Hastings and Gilmore St. in Burnaby, B.C. The soft crooning of The Pretenders, I’ll Stand by You mixes with the muffled footsteps of customers prowling the pristine, towering bookshelves. The care shown to each customer is sincere, and Powell knows how essential it is to her business continuing. “It really is genuine,” she says. 

Whatever her recipe, there is something that keeps people coming back. Weston MacLeod, who has been working at the bookstore since early 2021, remembers working at the coffee shop next door before making the switch to Companion. “There were more regulars at the bookstore than there were at the cafe.”

The death of print has been a grim reaper hovering over the publishing industry for over a decade. Physical book sales declined steadily for years, as digital retailers like Amazon took up more and more of the market. When Borders, a popular bookstore chain in the U.S., declared bankruptcy in 2011, many saw it as the death knell for brick and mortar retailers. And yet, independent stores have kept their doors stubbornly open. 

Not only have they weathered the apparent storm, the number of independent booksellers has increased by 33 per cent since 2012, according to the American Independent Booksellers Association. Amidst industry turmoil, a global pandemic, and an increasing focus on digital commerce, independent bookstores are offering something customers can’t get anywhere else: connection.

Recounting her first years operating the bookstore after leaving her corporate job in Vanouver’s financial district, Powell recalls bonds forged with other independent stores. “It’s funny, we kind of developed together,” she said. “A lot of us are women, that helps.” Owners of other local bookshops would gather regularly when they started out, sharing tips, and going in together on orders. They even worked together to produce a map of all the independent bookstores on the lower mainland. 

“We helped each other when we really needed it,” she said. As business and life has gotten busier, and as the COVID-19 pandemic made meeting in person more difficult, regular meetings fizzled out, but the spirit of unity remained. “We all help each other, it’s quite an open community,” said Powell.

Of course there were, and are, many challenges that come with maintaining an independent shop. Though there is demand for the physical and social experience they offer, establishments like Powell’s have a lot of competition. “It was a steep learning curve,” she said. A mix of new releases and used books at reduced prices help to get people in the door. Powell estimates that around 95 per cent of the store’s inventory is used. 

Price is obviously a factor, especially for students on a limited budget, but more commonly the browsing experience was itself the motivator. “Sometimes you get books with people’s notes in them,” said one patron. There is also a genuine desire to support local businesses. “F**k big brands,” said another customer, not to put too fine a point on it.

Companion Books has very low turnover, and Powell said that’s not uncommon in the industry. “I’m very fortunate, I have great employees, so I feel that responsibility towards them, and to make sure that this carries on.” Powell knows the power of story, and understands well its ability to shape people. In fact, her love for stories is inked directly on her skin. On the inside of one wrist is a symbol that any fantasy reader will recognize immediately. The initials of J.R.R. Tolkien, exactly as they appear on every issue of The Lord of the Rings. 

Powell wants stores like hers to remain, as a communal space for people to meet, share, and connect. “When you walk into a bookstore you see lots of ideas, not just beautiful stories and awesome places to visit. That’s why it says on my door, ‘Come on in and live a thousand lives.’“

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