Writers on the Range: In small towns, bookstores are thriving (2024)

“I love to spend my day in a bookstore,” said Amy Sweet.

She lives in Red Lodge, Montana, and was explaining why she and her husband Brian opened Beartooth Books in her town of 2,300.

“It was part of the life we wanted — to live in a small town, walk to work, and enjoy outdoor adventures and wonderful people.”

She’s not alone. For many of the same reasons, bookstores have been opening in small Western towns, said Heather Duncan, executive director of the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association.

Since 2020, more than 100 bookstores have opened in her region, which extends across 14 states ranging from Texas to Montana and from Nebraska to Nevada.

One reason for the phenomenon, said Amy Sweet, is that “people are proud of their town, our local history. It’s all a package, and the bookstore gets to be part of that.”

The success of such a low-tech enterprise might surprise people.

“Lots of first-time customers come in and say, ‘I thought bookstores were dying,'” Brian Sweet said.

But he believes that a bookstore is a perfect complement to today’s culture.

“A bookstore is quiet, peaceful, and yet mentally stimulating,” he said. “It’s not our devices and incessant TV news.”

Bookstores opening in towns, as opposed to cities, is a trend throughout the West, Duncan said. Of her 60 member stores in Colorado, just 17 are in large cities. The rest are in small towns, smaller cities, or suburbs. In the Western Slope town of Paonia, population 1,500, Emily Sinclair opened Paonia Books a year ago. She said she likes exercising her own as well as local taste, and also enjoys inviting Western writers to give talks and sign their new books.

These days, said Duncan, bookstores are becoming more diverse in both ownership and retail model.

“We now have online-only stores, pop-up stores, book buses and bookmobiles,” she said. And new store owners are often Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino, or LGBTQ+. “Diverse-owned stores are approximately 20% of our membership. In the past it would have been around 10%.”

Locating a bookstore in a rural community is arguably another aspect of diversity — and a surprising strength.

“Small-town stores had a much better success rate during the pandemic,” Duncan said, “due mostly to the support of their communities, as well as lower overhead costs.”

The strong connection to community, however, requires work.

“We pick the books one by one,” Brian Sweet said. “People are surprised to hear that — some think we just sell whatever shows up. But I pore over publisher catalogs, and in a small store, for every book that I choose, probably 200 don’t make the cut.”

Bookstores in tourist destinations, such as Back of Beyond in Moab, Utah, have always thrived on deep community connections. But the current trend highlights how community is something best appreciated by full-time residents rather than visitors.

Like farmers’ markets, microbreweries, bakeries and outdoor-gear stores, bookstores are places to gather in person with like-minded neighbors, Amy Sweet said.

“Customers in a bookstore are friendly and inquisitive,” she said. “They come in to browse and talk about books.”

While tech companies are always looking to “scale up” to provide growth, the challenge for many small towns is finding business models that “scale down” to smaller populations. Bookselling provides that model.

But booksellers agree that they’re doing a job: “It’s business — it’s not reading books all day,” said Brian Sweet. “But it’s a business where people want to support you. Every day,” he added, “people thank us for being open.”

Here’s a sampling of much-loved bookstores in Western towns under 10,000 people:

  1. Back of Beyond Books,https://backofbeyondbooks.com/, Moab, Utah, pop. 5,300

And here’s a sampling of bookstores in Western towns under 10,000 that opened in the last three years:

  1. Mountain Shire Books,https://mountainshirebooks.com/, Winter Park, Colorado, population 1,033

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range,writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He’s the author of the email newsletterNatural Stories.

Writers on the Range: In small towns, bookstores are thriving (2024)


What are the challenges faced by bookstores? ›

You could say it is a difficult time to be a bookseller or for bookshops to stay afloat. There are problems everywhere. The rising cost of rent, the soaring energy costs to heat and run buildings, or more importantly, what's causing the death of most shops: Amazon.

Do bookstores have a future? ›

Despite the rise of e-books and online retailers, independent bookstores are thriving. These small businesses offer a unique shopping experience with personalized recommendations and a sense of community. And now, they are embracing technology to stay competitive and attract new customers.

Can a bookstore be successful? ›

Good angle. If you want to become a successful bookstore owner, then you need to niche down. Nowadays, it is very hard to survive if you open a generic bookstore. That's because you will be competing with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other giants in the industry.

What is the only way that bookstores can profitably sell books? ›

The only way that bookstores can profitably sell books at below-market prices is to get the books at a discount from publishers. Unless bookstores generate a high sales volume, however, they cannot get discounts from publishers.

What are the weaknesses of a book store? ›

  • Limited Space and Inventory Constraints: Constraints in store size may limit the book selection and hinder stocking popular titles. ...
  • Competition from Online Retailers: Intense competition from online book giants might impact customer footfall and sales volume.
May 16, 2024

Why are bookstores important to the community? ›

Supporting local businesses, including bookstores, contributes to the local economy. Money spent at local bookstores stays within the community, supporting jobs, local taxes, and other economic activities.

Why are bookstores going out of business? ›

Many independent used bookstores struggled to survive during the pandemic and shut down because they could not afford to keep their business open and they were conscious of their community's health. While some recovered from the shutdown, others went out of business.

Will bookstores become obsolete? ›

The short answer is: not necessarily. There are some good arguments to make for the future of printed books. Slow growth. Though eBooks are becoming more popular, the rate of growth isn't as fast as you might think – right now, only 30 percent of Americans read eBooks regularly.

Are bookstores making a comeback? ›

But even as Amazon has continued to dominate – with 50% of trade book sales happening online in 2020 – indie bookstores have been making a comeback. There are, in fact, 500 more of them today than there were in 2009. Andy Hunter founded Bookshop.org with the explicit aim of helping to save the indie bookstore.

What is the average profit of a bookstore? ›

If you mean retail, the profits could be anywhere from 25to 70%. If you mean direct to consumer, it should be at least 40% but it also depends on what product you are selling. Also think about competition, so if another product similar to yours is selling for X, you should sell it for a similar or slightly lower price.

Do bookstores make money anymore? ›

Many stores have also seen a bump in profits. In a survey of booksellers earlier this year, the association found that some 80 percent of respondents said they saw higher sales in 2021 than in 2020, and nearly 70 percent said their sales last year were higher than 2019, Ms. Hill said.

How to run a successful bookstore? ›

How to Run a Bookstore: 9 Strategies for a Successful Bookshop
  1. Create Bundled Deals, Gift Sets, and Other Promotions – And Track Them. ...
  2. Get the Right Bookstore Point of Sale. ...
  3. Sell Lots of Impulse Buys and Related Products. ...
  4. Follow and Anticipate the Seasons. ...
  5. Think About Adding a Coffee Shop to Your Bookstore.
Mar 27, 2024

What do bookstores do with unsold books? ›

When shelf space is limited or at a premium, unsold books are removed and replaced with something newer, shinier, or simply something likely to sell more quickly. The removed books usually end up travelling back to the publisher or onwards to a wholesaler or online relister where they may be: Resold.

How do bookstores decide which books to sell? ›

These stores also stock the "hot" bestselling titles, but they also often stock titles by local authors. Authors can often get in touch with the managers of these stores, show them their books, and if the manager thinks the book will sell, they'll stock it.

Do book shops make money? ›

The average profit an independent bookseller made was £44,400 with the owner paying themselves £22,200. Last year's figures also revealed that of the average turnover of £370,000, just over 70%of that figure from book sales.

What are some of the challenges currently facing the book publishing industry? ›

The Internet, printing-on-demand, and eBooks are the main drivers of change, offering publishers new ways to reach and interact with their audience. This transformation is not without its challenges, as the publishing industry must adapt to the Internet age and the evolving expectations of a tech-savvy audience.

What are three major challenges for book publishing in the 21st century? ›

With more than two million books published every year, the book selling climate is fiercely competitive. Every author must meet and overcome three challenges to sell books: attention, time, and declining readership.

What are the risks of opening a bookstore? ›

Customer and vendor risks.

A customer risk can be an accident in the store, one of your vehicles being involved in an auto accident, an irate customer becoming violent, or product recalls. Balaun said that slip-and-fall cases fall into this category.

What is a book face challenge? ›

Here is how to take this challenge:

Use the book cover you choose to create a striking photo that will blur the lines between reality by replacing the book's cover with parts of yourself. We have samples and books on display to help with this challenge.

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