When Barbara White left The Kitchen — not the one in her home, but the Chapel Hill restaurant — with a glass of red wine in her hand, she wasn’t headed to a party, concert, or even for another drink. Instead, she wandered into… a bookstore?
White strolled into the persimmon-colored space with black shelves that brim with stories of life, love and never-ending indie books. She knows this is her kind of perfect evening — at a bookshop browsing and listening to authors read their books.
Tonight, it’s at Chapel Hill’s last and only local bookstore, Flyleaf Books.
“There’s a real feeling of buzz and community when you go to any of the events there,” White said. “I’ve always loved the atmosphere of bookshops. Book shopping to me is therapy. It’s retail therapy.”
The quirky shop, which lays at the bottom of a steep hill 15-minutes north of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, is a place one would notice on a drive into town or getting a bite to eat at one of the three restaurants connected to it.
After Chapel Hill lost Bull Head’s Bookshop to Barnes and Noble’s private management in 2016, a tumultuous bookstore landslide followed — Internationalist Books (which moved from Chapel Hill to Carrboro and eventually closed their physical location), then Chapel Hill Comics and finally its neighbor, The Bookshop, whose friendly, ginger and white cats lit up the faces of passersby on Franklin Street.
These closed-down bookstores suggest that the local booksellers that are left are operating in a generally negative climate, but how can that be the case when you still have locals like White whose favorite thing to do is explore bookstores?
When Jamie Fiocco, the owner of Flyleaf Books, opened her business in 2009, bookstores still coexisted on Franklin Street with large companies like Barnes and Nobles and Borders. But Borders has since gone out of business, and Chapel Hill is now left with only Flyleaf Books and Barnes and Nobles.
“Retail stressors are always a concern, but I am definitely not worried about independent bookstores,” Fiocco said. “You know, would our business pick up if Barnes and Nobles went away? Probably, but it’s the same with online booksellers. We try to not compete. We try to do what we do really well.”
According to the American Booksellers Association, there has been a 35 percent increase in the number of independent bookstore locations in the U.S. since 2009. Interpreting that locally means what’s happening in Chapel Hill is unusual, but it’s not because readers don’t enjoy meandering through mazes of bookshelves.
The problem isn’t that bookstores are closing. It’s the perception of bookstores themselves.
Land Arnold, a previous co-owner of Flyleaf Books, didn’t hesitate when he decided to open his own bookstore, Letters Bookshop, in downtown Durham in December 2013.
“I think when the iPod came out, it was a category killer for music, and it really changed the music industry,” Arnold said. “So when the eReaders came out, people kind of copy and pasted the same story thinking the same thing would happen and… it didn’t.”
Rather than there being an issue with the stores themselves, parking and rent, two influential issues for every business on Franklin Street, proved to be the reasons why the last few independent bookstores closed in Chapel Hill.
However, that didn’t deter Arnold from opening a bookstore in revitalized downtown Durham, where his store has no dedicated parking lot and where rent continues to rise for all the buildings in the area.
“We’re kind of lucky we’re in a spot in downtown Durham which is naturally getting more and more foot traffic,” Arnold said. “Bookstores naturally tend to be places that people feel comfortable coming in and sharing ideas. They very quickly become a place that the community is proud to have.”
And not all independent bookstores are the same. Arnold left Flyleaf Books, which sells mostly new books and gifts, to open Letter Bookshop, which sells mostly used books.
So it’s not that buyers always come to bookstores for what’s inside, but for what they do. People crave bookstores more than ever because it’s becoming one of the only environments where people can escape their increasingly-busy, digitized worlds.
That’s especially the case for White when she goes to Flyleaf Books.
“It’s a great little place to just mooch around,” White said. “I mean I live a frantic life and I go to Flyleaf and I feel like I can take a deep breath and do what I enjoy doing, which is just sort of moseying around a bookstore.”
UNC-Chapel Hill senior Jada Harkins Andrews is one of the growing majority who exclusively purchase and read books online because of the speed and accessibility online retailers provide. However, she recognizes that when she does go to bookstores, she goes for the novelty of it — like the cats in a window or the small note recommendations in front of every book — even if she doesn’t purchase anything. A special part of her first-year experience was exploring Franklin Street and wandering into businesses like The Bookshop.
But when people are so wrapped up in the busyness of their everyday lives, and when they are surrounded by other overloaded people, it’s easy to think that no one still browses bookstores.
“It’s closed now? See, I didn’t even know that,” Harkins Andrews said about The Bookshop. “I’m kind of saddened by the fact because I didn’t even know these bookstores were closed down.”
White admits that shopping online is easy, especially when she can’t find what she wants in stores, like a research book or a book out of print. So it may not be that there are more online readers, but rather more hybrid readers.
Digital sales fell 18.7 percent for the first nine months of 2016, while print sales have stayed relatively strong, according to the Association of American Publishers. Paperback sales were up 7.5 percent over the same period, and hardback sales increased 4.1 percent.
So White remains true to her unwavering attitude — make those trips to bookshops. She appreciates shopping and obtaining her books hand-to-hand. She trusts her local booksellers, like Flyleaf Books.
“Yes, you can buy anything online if you want to, but you don’t get that level of customer service when you can actually talk to someone about the book,” White said.
“You know, ‘What is your recommendation? Did you like this? Did you like the ending? I read this book by so-and-so what else should I read?’ I mean for someone who just loves books, you want to talk with others about books. That is part of the experience as being a reader is actually engaging, and maybe you do that at the library, but that level of engagement is never going to go away.”