Turning a new page: Independent bookstores flourish in Chicago

(Erin Yarnall / The DePaulia)
(Erin Yarnall / The DePaulia)

On May 2 a new national holiday, Independent Bookstore Day, was introduced, prompting thousands to seek out their nearest independent bookstore.

Chicago was no exception. Mayor Rahm Emanuel even issued a proclamation declaring May 2 Independent Bookstore Day in the city.

The inaugural holiday’s success throughout the nation proves that in the age of digital technology innovations such as the iPad, Kindle and Nook, there is something to be said for the power of print. The permanence and physicality of books leads many to strongly defend the print medium as the superior form of reading.

So why is the general consensus of the American public that the print medium is dying?

Large bookstore retailers have been forced to adapt to electronic mediums or die trying. This often gives the public the perception that the print medium is in danger of becoming extinct.

However, with the popularity of independent bookstore retailers, finding locations to purchase books  does not seem like it will become a problem anytime soon.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The digitization of literature and Amazon-ification of book sales that rattled the publishing industry in the mid-aughts has settled into a moment of stability for independent bookstores primed and ready to fill voids left by the 2011 bankruptcy of Borders books and the closings of several Barnes & Noble locations in the area.”

People are still searching out books the old-fashioned way. Rather than using websites to drop items into a digital cart, consumers want the experience of being able to explore a physical space and receive direct, personalized recommendations from employees and other customers.

As former bookstore retailers — most notably bankrupt Borders — failed to compete with the tough economic times and make the digital switch in addition to producing print content, consumers are left with less conventional bookstore options as major bookstore retailers face immense downsizing and eventual closings.

Many consumers feel they must turn to the Internet for book buying. However, for those seeking more out of their book buying experience, independent bookstores are a viable option.

Although extremely convenient, online book shopping doesn’t outweigh many consumers’ desire for individual exploration, which can’t be fulfilled by a series of hyperlinks and NYT Book Reviews.

“I like to support small businesses. There is consistency and typically always the same people there,” said Jennifer Kosco, associate director of the Honors Program at DePaul. “They get to know you and the books you like. Additionally, you want to keep money in the community.”

Beyond shopping, studies show that reading in print helps with overall comprehension. The Guardian found in a 2014 study “readers using a Kindle were ‘significantly’ worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story.”

Fifty readers were given a short story to read. Half read the story on Kindle and the other half read the story in paperback. The participants were then tested on their comprehension of the story.

The Guardian reported, “Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University, a lead researcher on the study, thought academics might find differences in the immersion facilitated by the device, in emotional responses to the story.”

In an analysis of the results, “the Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, i.e. when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.’ ”

What this means is that readers on the Kindle couldn’t physically see or feel their progress in reading the 28-page story that they were given. This lack of sensory function led researchers to believe that being able to track your progress when reading can help with accounting for the timing of events.

Furthermore, a 2013 study titled, “How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation,” “discovered that individuals who read an upsetting short story on an iPad were less empathetic and experienced less transportation and immersion than those who read on paper,” according to mic.com.

There is clearly a difference in the experience of reading in print versus on a digital screen, and this leads to a difference in comprehension.

bookstoresWith research like this, the print medium still has a prominent place in society. Supporting independent bookstores is a way in which society can both show their support for the print industry and engage in a personalized adventure. Hunting down new authors, subjects and titles can be an activity in itself.

“I like independent bookstores because they support physical books and also you can find so much cooler books there,” Helen Kinskey, a DePaul freshman, said. “For instance, I just found a 1943 Harper’s Magazine…you wouldn’t find that on Amazon I don’t think.”

The Economist suggests that the current bookstore market can even lead to a better book-buying experience for consumers. For the independent bookstores that hope to survive in the face of a digital revolution, they must improve the experience of buying books.

Alex Lifschutz, an architect of bookstores, suggests strategic layouts such as “small, quiet spaces cocooned with books, larger spaces where one can dwell and read, and other larger but still intimate spaces where one can hear talks from authors about books, literature, science, travel and cookery.”

Independent bookstores must not only make their locations a place for simply purchasing books, but they must also incorporate a sort of community aspect in which people are drawn into the space to relax and enjoy themselves for an extended period of time.

The Economist realizes that “The bookstore of the future will have to work hard. Service will be knowledgeable and personalized, the inventory expertly selected, spaces well-designed and the cultural events enticing.”

While this can motivate independent booksellers to create a unique experience for customers, certainly not all independent bookstores are up for the task.

In Chicago, there is a thriving market for those who view the book-buying process as an adventure. Independent bookstores are scattered throughout the city and their presence demonstrates a strong defense for the print industry and bookstores as a whole.

Before picking up an e-reader or even logging into Amazon to make a purchase, it’s necessary to think about the print industry and the future of bookstores.

Independent bookstores are currently adapting to the challenge of becoming a unique space for community and adventure, while huge retailers prove unable. Perhaps, in the midst of digital technology, it is actually a bright age for independent bookstores.