Pivot, connect and serve. Some of the Midwest’s best indie bookstores regenerate and thrive—even during a pandemic.

By Alicia Underlee Nelson
August 20, 2020
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John F. King Used and Rare Books
Courtesy of More.Detroit

Your local bookshop might seem quaint or charming, a throwback to a simpler time. But don’t be fooled. Independent booksellers are a scrappy army of Davids taking on a foe they see as Goliath. And they’re not doing it quietly.

Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, drew attention last fall. In October—fresh off being named seller of the year by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association—he fired off a tweet that put billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on blast for cheapening literature.

“If we sold all of our books at that discount, everything in the store, we’d be out of business in six days,” Caine says now, describing the impetus behind his impromptu manifesto. “It’s a large-scale experiment that devalues books. That makes it a lot harder for authors to get paid. We don’t want a world where only privileged people can be writers.”

The tweet galvanized other booksellers. And it’s a challenge to the rest of us, a pointed reminder that our purchases are a vote for what we value.

When you buy from an independent bookstore, you get more than just a book. Indie shops champion diverse voices and provide personalized recommendations based on conversations, not an algorithm. They’re social hubs and gathering places—even as a pandemic redefines how we connect with each other.

By keeping their business models nimble and their feet firmly planted in their communities, Midwest entrepreneurs are adapting and advancing the neighborhood bookstore experience for its next incarnation.

Janet Webster Jones, founder of Source Booksellers
Jacob Lewkow

Specialty Stores, Across the Midwest

At niche stores focused on specific genres, you’ll find owners with deep expertise and passion. Here are a few standouts:

Get your mystery fix at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis. (Just pick your poison—thrillers, action, police procedurals, cozies or classic detective novels.)

In Detroit, Source Booksellers focuses on nonfiction, with an emphasis on history, culture, arts, metaphysics, spirituality and health, as well as titles by and for women. “Bookstores are a community-based operation,” says Janet Webster Jones, founder of Source. “We’re embedded in the community, and we serve the community.”

Near Cleveland, enormous Loganberry Books carries rare, used and new titles, with particular expertise in women’s history and lit; leather-bound and first editions; and tracking down old children’s books.

A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wisconsin, focuses on amplifying underrepresented voices. “We try to be an intersectional bookstore,” says co-owner Gretchen Treu. “We started as a feminist bookstore in the ’70s, and now our big focus is LGBT and anti-racist titles—and just the voices of people of color more generally.”

Prairie Lights, Iowa City

This indie icon enjoys a symbiotic relationship with The University of Iowa and its Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Before the coronavirus, the cafe was bustling, readings drew crowds and local authors popped in daily. When the physical store closed in the spring, conversations continued. Customers shop and score personalized recommendations online and over the phone. Big names like John Grisham have offered virtual readings. Owner Jan Weissmiller has even filled curbside pickup orders for traveling customers, since the Prairie Lights fan club extends across state lines.

Semicolon Bookstore and Gallery, Chicago

Semicolon Bookstore
Courtesy of Semicolon Bookstore

This bookstore-gallery space captured headlines when it debuted in 2019 as Chicago’s only bookstore owned by a Black woman. DL Mullen made art and literature accessible by welcoming visual artists of color to two-month residencies, featuring self-published authors and helping fledgling writers print their own works in-house.

But the shop on North Halsted stayed in the news because of its commitment to literacy and community. Its recent #ClearTheShelves events feature free books for students and donations to empowering nonprofit organizations. Lines of eager kids in protective masks stretch down the block. The next generation of readers has arrived.

The Book Loft Of German Village, Columbus, Ohio

The Book Loft of German Village
Rebecca Richey/@Eatingbooks

Ohio’s largest independent bookshop sprawls across an entire city block. Up to a million new and bargain books are tucked into 32 rooms that snake through the pre-Civil War-Era building. They spill out onto the porch and line the shady courtyard’s brick paths. “A lot of people compare it to a labyrinth or a maze,” says Marketing Manager Gary Lovely. “We have people that call us from the other rooms. It’s super easy to get lost.”

Grab a map. Or opt for curbside pickup, online ordering or The Book Loft Mystery Box, where booksellers hand-pick a customized selection of new favorites.

John K. King Used And Rare Books, Detroit

Four floors. One million titles. More than 90 categories—and those are just the ones listed on the map. Shopping at the massive downtown location (an old glove factory) is like treasure hunting on a Wes Anderson set, with stacks of gently loved books classified by and within each room.

The shop’s owner, the eponymous Mr. King, has largely resisted going digital, but the Rare Book Room is the exception to that rule. Its collection of 25,000 first editions, autographs, maps and assorted book-related ephemera is also available online.

Red Balloon Bookshop, St. Paul

This children’s store has been a fixture on Grand Avenue since 1984. The pandemic has lured new fans for online reading lists; virtual author events; and gift packs featuring toys, games, books and puzzles.

“People are limited in what they can do right now, so we’ve helped fill that void,” says owner Holly Weinkauf. “We have gift packs for baby showers, backyard camping, road trips, a writer’s kit and one that’s art-focused.” Or try a Bookshop in a Box subscription that adapts as kids grow, from board books through young adult.