10 Incredible Indie Bookstores in the Midwest
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. 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.
The Raven Book Store, Lawrence, Kansas
The Raven Book Store—an employee-owned business as of 2022—is at the front line of small business advocacy. One of the owners, Danny Caine, fired off a tweet awhile back that blasted billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for cheapening literature, and then penned a book, How to Resist Amazon and Why.
"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. "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."
Caine has been named seller of the year by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, and the store was named bookstore of the year in 2022 by Publishers Weekly. Caine, who bought the bookstore in 2017, recently loaned seven of his employees money to purchase half the store, with the loan to be repaid out of future store profits.
Founded in 1987, the Raven specializes in mysteries as well as fiction, poetry, science fiction and more. Community events include readings and author panels.
Related: Top Things to Do in Lawrence, Kansas
Semicolon Bookstore and Gallery, Chicago
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 #ClearTheShelves events feature free books for students and donations to empowering nonprofit organizations. The next generation of readers has arrived.
Related: A Literary Getaway to Chicago
The Book Loft Of German Village, Columbus, Ohio
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.
Related: Top Things to Do in Columbus, Ohio
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.
Related: 36 Hours in Detroit
Red Balloon Bookshop, St. Paul
This children's store has been a fixture on Grand Avenue since 1984 and is owned by Holly Weinkauf, who bought the store in 2011 from its original owners, Carol Erdahl and Michele Cromer-Poire. The pandemic lured new fans for online reading lists; virtual author events; and gift packs featuring toys, games, books and puzzles. Now, in-store story times and other live events have resumed. But you can still try a Bookshop in a Box subscription that adapts as kids grow, from board books through young adult.
Prairie Lights, Iowa City
This indie icon enjoys a symbiotic relationship with The University of Iowa and its Iowa Writers' Workshop. The long-running "Live from Prairie Lights" reading series is presented before a live audience as well as streamed. The bookstore takes up three and a half floors, with a cafe and children's area.
Related: Top Things to Do in Iowa City
Specialty Stores, Across the Midwest
These outstanding niche stores focus on specific genres.
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."