Morgan Moore and her husband, Lee, would get asked the same question every time they set up the Pantego Books table to sell new and used titles at the local farmers market.
Where are you located?
“We would have to say, ‘Well, we’re just online right now.’ And their faces — you could see (them) drop a little bit. That happened every time we did it,” Moore said.
The community’s excitement and support for the independent bookseller sped up the timeline for the couple’s opening of a brick-and-mortar shop on the border of Pantego and Dalworthington Gardens in southeast Tarrant County.
Pantego Books is one of several independent bookstores that have opened in Tarrant County over the past year. Others include Talking Animals Books in Grapevine and A House With Books in Keller, adding to Tarrant’s already well-established bookstores like The Dock Bookshop and Monkey & Dog Books.
The Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, which includes Texas, has 10 independent bookstore members in Tarrant County.
Five of those opened in the past few years, said Heather Duncan, executive director of the association.
“Bookstores were not as on the rise as they are now, five years ago, 10 years ago. I would say they were holding somewhat steady,” Duncan said. “But what I feel like we are seeing in the industry is … the consumer spending changed during the pandemic in a lot of ways.”
Since 2020, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s membership has risen by 28%. And bookstore owners are increasingly diverse: 12% are owned by people of color and 13% are owned by the LGBTQ community, Duncan said.
The American Booksellers Association reports about 254 independent bookstores opened across the country in 2022.
Searching for a personal experience
The term “independent bookstore” refers to a store that is owned by a single individual or family. Those businesses can have multiple locations or chains. Half Price Books, which is owned by a Dallas family and has seven locations in Tarrant County, is one example.
If you ask Katy Lemieux and Valerie Walizadeh what makes Talking Animals Books, their indie bookstore in Grapevine, stand out from corporate-owned shops like Barnes & Noble, it’s the uniquely personal and intimate space they’ve created for patrons.
“We do sell books and we want everybody to have access to books, but we’re kind of selling the experience,” Walizadeh said. “We’re selling having people in the store that are knowledgeable about books. …”
Following COVID-19-induced isolation policies, people are now seeking those human-to-human interactions, Lemieux said.
“COVID has forced us all to kind of reckon with the way we communicate with each other. People are craving interactions with each other,” Lemieux said. “They’re craving knowledge and understanding because digital communication and social media can only go so far.”
As people seek community and safe spaces in their neighborhoods, local support for independent booksellers has risen, encouraging the opening of more stores that cater to the needs of diverse communities and readers.
“We curate what we carry. A lot of what we have are where our values are at and where our interests lie,” Moore said. “Our location isn’t so large that it’s overwhelming. It’s a very intimate store. So you can spend time here but you don’t get lost.”
Bookshops also play a major role in boosting the local economy. Bookstores across the country reported $587 million in sales in July 2023, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Not quite there
While the steady growth of independent bookstores in Tarrant County is promising, Fort Worth and Dallas are still considered underserved in relation to their population size, said Ed Nawotka, senior international and bookselling editor at Publishers Weekly, a global news website on book publishing and bookselling.
“We’re the second most populous state in the country, and while we have a lot of bookstores, we are underrepresented when it comes to the number of bookstores,” Nawotka said. “Dallas has four or five, Fort Worth has three or four, and that’s relatively modest compared to a similar sized city. Even a city like Seattle has more than Dallas or Fort Worth.”
That means there is room for more independent stores on the map.
“It takes one or two to get the ball rolling,” Duncan said. “It really takes (something) like the breaking of a dam almost. It’s like people know that there’s a store and then, all of a sudden, realize that more stores could be supported.”
The business model of bookstores is also changing. Bookstores are no longer just brick-and-mortar locations. Some businesses are pop-ups or mobile shops while others expand their appeal by selling food and beverages, including wine.
In December 2022, The Novel Narwhal, a women-owned pop-up and online bookstore opened in Roanoke, Texas.
“Bookstores are notoriously low-margin businesses, it’s very hard to be profitable in a bookstore for lots of industry reasons. But if you add in something (like) wine and beer, or if you add in a really good gift items section — that model is really allowing bookstores to open in … places I think … might not have supported a bookstore in the past,” Duncan said.
Fort Worth is on the path to seeing continuous growth in the independent bookstore scene, bookstore owner Lemieux says, citing the increasing demand for walkable communities. Those neighborhoods are the perfect places for independent bookstores to thrive.
“Fort Worth has a really cool and interesting renaissance happening with the revitalization of the (Near) South Side and South Main,” Lemieux said. “Fort Worth is becoming a place where there are walkable islands, and I think indie bookstores are a huge part of that.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @ssadek19.
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