Metro Detroit indie bookstores turn a new page

The struggle of mom-and-pop stores trying to survive is an all-too-common tale, and it's been a particularly challenging situation for independent booksellers, who have had to deal with the rise of corporate book chains and online sellers like Amazon.

But statistics from the last few years indicate that indie booksellers appear to be rebounding in the United States. According to data from the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookshops grew by 27 percent from 2009 to 2015, a period that included the demise of the once-mighty Borders book chain.

Locally, it's been a mixed bag, with new stores like Literati in Ann Arbor or Pages in Detroit opening their doors and others like Off the Beaten Path, a steampunk-themed bookshop in Farmington, shutting down. To get a feel for what's happening in the Metro Detroit book scene these days, Metromode spoke with three venerable local booksellers to see how they’ve been faring.

Brown's Family Bookstore, St. Clair Shores

Located on Harper in St. Clair Shores, Brown's Family Bookstore is a true mom-and-pop shop that, interestingly, no longer has anything to do with the Browns. Today, the new and used book retailer is run by Elia and Glenn Elswick, who purchased the 1,000-square-foot store back in the late '90s and decided to keep the name.

Glenn Elswick tells Metromode his wife Elia, an avid reader, first became acquainted with the store as a customer.

"She actually had come here to purchase books; the lady who owned it at that time asked her if she would be interested in working for her," says Elswick. "She worked part-time, and the health of the first lady deteriorated to the point that she decided that she would sell the store. And in 1999, we bought it."

Primarily a used book store. Brown's has had the most success selling historical romance and romantic suspense novels and also does well with supernatural-themed fiction. As for new books, which comprise under 10 percent of the stock, it carries a good selection of classics, historical romance, and sci-fi/fantasy titles. Used books cost about half their listed cover price and patrons can trade in their own books to get credit towards purchases.

Over the years, Brown's has primarily counted on customers from St. Clair Shores. But since the recent closure of the Second Story in Eastpointe and New Horizons in Roseville, they've started to attract clientele from surrounding communities.

Elswick says business at the store, which has always been financially viable, has "tripled to quadrupled" since the two other shops went out of business. He's also of the opinion that people seem to be coming back to paper books after a brief fling with electronic readers, though he's not entirely sure how long the trend will last.

As for the future, that's not entirely clear right now. The Elswicks are currently considering selling the business to their intern, Jennifer Armstrong, but that's contingent on her getting a loan to help finance the deal.

"She's serious and so are we, but we're just waiting to see how it develops," says Elswick. "It's not a done deal. The store is still standing on its own."

The Books Connection, Livonia

A staple of Livonia literary life, The Books Connection has been supplying readers with paper treasures for more than 30 years. It's also in the running for having one of the cutest booksellers in the region, a fuzzy little Scottie dog named Darby that welcomes customers two days a week.

The store is located in a 2,100-plus-square-foot store at Five Mile near Merriman and offers a well-maintained selection of over 30,000 books. Customers will be able to find a bit of everything: classic lit, mystery, romance, science fiction, self-help, history children's books, as well as local writers like Beverly Jenkins, who's well known for her historical and contemporary romance novels focusing on African-American life, and former Detroit Police Sergeant Robert M. Haig, author of the memoir Ten Little Police Chiefs.

The Livonia shop also happens to be a two-time winner of WDIV-TV's 4 the Best viewer's choice contest for best local bookstore. The winning of these honors no doubt have something to do with the lengths the store's staff goes to please customers.

"We are booksellers, not just cashiers," says manager Charlotte Grombelski who's been with the company since 1982. "I think that helps. People just like the service."

"Let's say there's an author you like," she continues. ”Your budget's a little tight, and you'd like a book used; we'll put your name in the computer and notify you when the book comes in. We provide that service for free."

Other services include helpful referrals by the store’s skilled staff, special orders and shipping for folks who may not have the time or ability to stop in the store. The Books Connection also sells gift certificates and offers trade credit for used books and discounts for educators. It also hosts a regular book club and knitting circle.

Asked about the ups and downs of her business, Owner Kathleen Mahinske, who bought the store in 2002, says The Books Connection is as healthy as ever and goes on to share some intriguing thoughts about the industry as a whole.

"I think the people are just burned out a bit with technology," she says. "I'm not sure if eBooks are so much of our competition, right now. It's more just everything: How much time do you spend on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? How much more time do you spend binge watching TV series? That's really almost more of our competition; we're competing for entertainment time."

Book Beat, Oak Park

Book Beat, a local word mecca for creative types as well as a prize-winning children's bookstore, sits right next door to the Street Corner Music record shop in an Oak Park shopping plaza on Greenfield. It's not quite accurate to refer to the shop as a specialty bookstore, but does lean heavily towards a few specific areas.

"We have a couple of very special categories; our focus is in art, photography, children's books, and literature," says co-owner Cary Loren. "So we're a general bookstore, but we don't cover everything."

The store also has a sizable local authors section that features between 50-100 Michigan authors and a decent selection of poetry, graphic novels and books pertaining to politics and contemporary issues.

A man of many talents, Loren is an interesting character in his own right; he wears the hats of a photographer and filmmaker, not to mention musician (having played in the influential noise group Destroy All Monsters).

Loren founded Book Beat in 1982 with his wife Colleen Kammer after having worked at and managed other bookstores in the area. The name is both an allusion to both music and the Beats, the mid-20th-century literary movement.

In recent years, Book Beat has distinguished itself not just locally, but nationally; it won the prestigious Pannell award in 2017 from the Women's National Book Association for its excellent children's section. As for events, the shop hosts readings and book signings—it recently held one for sociologist Michael Eric Dyson—and occasionally sponsors outdoor concerts in the summer.

Running an independent bookstore hasn’t always been a walk in the park for Loren and his wife; lately, they’ve been dealing with a lot of competition from Amazon. But thankfully Book Beat’s owners have been able to sustain the business through the years with the help of passionate customers who love the store’s selection and have embraced the idea of buying local.

“[There’s] a general awareness people have now after losing say drug stores and hardware stores and some of the smaller places that used to exist,” he says. “People are a little bit more conscious about how and where they spend their money.”

Read more articles by David Sands.

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