Despite boasting a population well over 70,000, Flagstaff seems to pride itself on the small town charm epitomized by its historic downtown district. There, you can find many local and sometimes quirky businesses. One of my favorite places to visit is Bright Side Bookshop, which holds the unofficial title of Flagstaff’s only independent book store. Purchased in 2017 by locals Lisa Lamberson, Ben Shaffer, and Annette Avery, Bright Side is proud to “uphold the mantle of a ‘community hub,’” as stated on their website.
But small town charm can only take you so far. How does Bright Side keep its head above the water with a Barnes & Noble—or even Bookman’s, a thriftier option—just two miles away? With Amazon at our fingertips? Well, it certainly isn’t a fluke that Bright Side is so successful.
Contrary to popular belief, independent bookstores across America have risen in popularity not in spite of Amazon, but thanks to it. While indies did initially suffer a decline after Amazon opened its virtual doors in 1995, chain bookstores were not immune to the online shopping epidemic either. Chains were crushed in the wake of the online store’s success. Their demise left a gaping hole in the literary world that independent bookstores rushed to fill, eager to regain their relevance, and they’ve succeeded.
In the words of business journalist Paddy Hirsch, independent bookstores have “returned to dance on the ashes of [chain bookstores like] Borders.” According to Hirsch, the number of indie bookstores in the U.S. has grown nearly 40 percent since 2009. In a 2018 interview for NPR, Hirsch employed the expertise of Ryan Rafaelli, Harvard Business School professor and author of a study on the independent bookstore business, to explain this phenomenon.
Rafaelli posits that we can’t give Amazon all the credit. Although online shopping has become more popular than ever, independent bookstores have also been thriving. This is because independent bookstores can give us something that neither Amazon nor physical big box bookstores can provide, something that Rafaelli refers to as the 3 C’s: community, curation, and convening.
Independent bookshops bear a strong sense of community by virtue of their status as local businesses. Their individuality allows them to curate their inventory in order to create a personalized experience for members of their community, as well as anyone else who happens to stop by, as many tourists are inclined to do at Bright Side. Thus, they become places for like-minded individuals to convene, discover something new, and strengthen their community ties.
Bright Side’s commitment to the 3 C’s is apparent upon entrance, where you are greeted by a display of recommendations from the booksellers who are more than happy to chat with you in order to help you discover something you’ll love. And if you’d rather explore on your own, there are more staff picks for each genre throughout the store, inviting you to try something new.
I spoke with two of these Bright Side booksellers about their thoughts on the indie shop’s popularity, and their answers effused passion and pride.
“We are lucky enough to live in an awesome town that is just wild about supporting local businesses,” Sam Butler, Bright Side’s events manager, said. “They know us, and we know them.”
Bright Side is more than happy to give back to its generous community in small, but significant, ways. Its booksellers strive to “cater to local interest” and “attract specific niches of Flagstaff,” as Butler explained.
This curaration is part of what gives indie bookstores their personal touch. As Butler pointed out, shopping at Bright Side is going to be a very different experience than shopping at any other indie bookshop, even within one region. The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ, for example, specializes in mysteries and thrillers wile Antigone Books in Tucson, AZ proudly calls itself the oldest surviving femenist bookshop in the country.
Bright Side celebrates its unique community by promoting local authors, artists, and even places. They know much of their patronage comprises tourists, so what better souvenir to commemorate a trip to the nearby natural wonders—like, of course, the Grand Canyon—than an illustrated book?
Chain bookstores, on the other hand, must be ready to cater to every reader, which isn’t fundamentally a bad thing. When you visit Barnes & Noble, you know you will be able to find a book for yourself, as well as your entire family, all in one go. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Flagstaff, Phoenix, or on the other side of the country. Barnes & Noble will always cater to everyone’s needs, but consistency can quickly turn into monotony. If you’re in need of something new, why go looking for it among the same handful of popular titles? With personalized inventories, indie bookstores urge you to look past the familiar and explore different options. If you’re looking for an impersonal shopping experience, you can easily find it online. But if you’re going to make the effort of leaving the house, wouldn’t you much rather go on an adventure?
You can find so much more than a good book at Bright Side, which Margarita Cruz, the bookshop’s marketing manager, can attest to. “Bright Side prides itself on being able to serve as a literary hub for the community,” she told me. “We love to extend our arms and become a place for people to discuss, read, and talk about issues.”
Bright Side plays an important role in Flagstaff’s literary community as a host to an array of literary events from readings and book signings to children’s storytimes. I recently attended the reading that kicked off the Northern Arizona Book Festival in order to experience the intimate atmosphere that Cruz described.
I saw many familiar faces that night, and I met some new ones as well. I heard the voices of Flagstaff: Lyncia Begay, Sherwin Bitsui, and Dr. Nicole Walker. Three local writers and NAU instructors. I felt like I was part of something special. I felt it in the animated buzz as I took my seat among the growing assembly. I felt it in the beaming faces of the authors. In the still, attentive silence filled only by their impassioned voices. In the uproarious applause that followed.
This was the community, the convening, and the connection that Rafaelli refers to. The kinds of experiences you seldom encounter in a chain bookstore and certainly won’t find online. Chain bookstores may have their own staff picks, but how many of those staff members will you actually meet? Chains may host events for authors, but does attending them make you feel like a participant in your community, or will their events make you feel like just another spectator in the crowd?
I think Butler summarized it best when she described the “warm and fuzzy” feeling she gets anytime she hears someone exclaim, “Oh, my god, a real bookstore!”
The warm fuzziness was palpable from the moment I first walked in. I had trouble finding a specific book, and the bookseller on duty at the time didn’t simply give me directions to the right section. She walked me over and put the book right in my hands all while she sang its praises and named other books I might also enjoy. I was just a blip in her routine that day, and I doubtlessly became one of many faces she’d seen pass through the store, but still, I think of her every time I visit.
I can’t speak for every independent bookshop, but at least at Bright Side you feel like someone cares. About books. About community. About you.
Alina Gonzalez is an undergraduate English student at Northern Arizona University. This is her first online publication.