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A stack of books at a bookstore. Sarah Lawrence for Vox; Photo: Michael Chin/Getty Images

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Instagram is helping save the indie bookstore

Stores like Books Are Magic and the Last Bookstore are benefiting from love on #bookstagram.

Nisha Chittal is the Chief of Staff at Vox.

The internet is killing independent bookstores. Right? Maybe not.

For years, that’s been the prevailing narrative: The internet is killing IRL bookstores, particularly your beloved mom-and-pop local independent bookstore. Since Amazon launched in 1995, it has been lamented as earth-shattering for the brick-and-mortar bookstore business. And when Amazon subsequently launched the Kindle e-reader device in 2007, it sold out immediately. People fretted that it was ushering in the death of the print book in favor of the e-book.

Indeed, Amazon decimated giant bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and the now-shuttered Borders. But independent bookstores, against all odds, are actually growing, not dying. And the internet — particularly social media and Instagram — has played a huge role in revitalizing independent bookstores.

Between 2009 and 2015, the number of independent bookstores grew by 35 percent, according to the American Booksellers Association. Print book sales are on the rise too: Sales of physical books have increased every year since 2013. In 2017, print book sales were up 10.8 percent from 2013, while sales of traditionally published e-books actually dropped 10 percent from 2016 to 2017.

A big part of the reason indie bookstores are thriving is the way they connect to the community, and social media is making that easier than ever.

#Bookstagram is creating a thriving space — and community — for bibliophiles on Instagram

In a time when we sleep with our smartphones next to us, what you share on social media tells a story about who you are. And many can’t resist telling a story about themselves as smart, worldly, and well-read.

Since the photo-sharing social network launched in 2010, the Instagram grid has gone from a random assortment of photos of your meals and vacations to a carefully curated and highly edited expression of your identity. Documenting the bookstores we visit and the books we read has become a huge part of that: The hashtag #bookstagram has been used on more than 25 million photos on Instagram. A heavily filtered photo at your local indie bookstore, lost among the towering stacks of Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace, signals to the world your sophisticated literary preferences.

We are spending more time online and on our phones than ever before, which has prompted many to question how much time they spend staring at their devices. The technology backlash has been a boon for books: As people try to tamp down their screen time, they’re turning back to reading more physical books.

Tammy Gordon, a social media consultant in Washington, DC, set a goal to read 100 books in 2018 and used Instagram to document her progress throughout the year using the hashtag #100booksin2018. She carefully considered how her book photos fit into the visual identity of her Instagram account: “Most of my Instagram, beyond books, is food, wine and travel,” Gordon told me over email. “As #100booksin2018 became more a part of my visual narrative on Instagram, I decided to combine the two — what I’m reading paired with what (or where) I’m eating and drinking.”

Gordon also reads some e-books, which make for a much less sexy Instagram, but she still shares a screenshot of the book cover from her e-reading device and admits: “Those may get less ‘Instalove,’ but are also some of the best books that I’ve read, so I don’t want to leave them out.”

The desire to show off your reading habits on social media has also spawned home design trends: Color-coded bookshelves were the Pinterest-inspired craze spreading through homes and Instagram accounts a few years ago (guilty). More recently, a story about people organizing their books with the spines facing in and pages facing out went viral on social media (which seems to defeat the purpose of having books by making it nearly impossible to actually … find a book).

All this bookstagramming has led to a thriving space for book lovers on social media, and that’s been a good thing for independent bookstores too — because it plays to their key strength: creating community.

Ryan Raffaelli, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied the resurgence of independent bookstores, tells me the key to indie bookstores’ growth in the digital era is building community, which they’re well-poised to do thanks to “strong and deep” ties to their neighbors. “They’re seen as authentic members of the community that have been there for, often in many cases, decades or generations,” Raffaelli says. The common perception of the bookstore as a place where people “can come not only to buy a book, but to have a conversation with other people who are interested in similar ideas,” cements their place in the neighborhood.

Indie bookstores also build community by hosting events that bring these like-minded people together, says Raffaelli. “A lot of the bookstores I’ve been in are hosting more than 500 events a year now.” And those events, he explains, are attracting consumers who not only love and buy books but care about creating online connections. For instance, young people who attend an event are also likely to post about it on Instagram, Facebook, or Reddit, connecting the bookstore’s audience to their own corners of the internet.

“You have a new generation of buyer who thinks about building community not only in terms of a local community, a physical space, but also an online community. And a lot of the independent booksellers capture this and understand this,” explains Raffaelli. These shoppers want to follow their local indie bookstore on social media and then broadcast their support of the store on Instagram.

Bookstore owners are embracing Instagram — and the visual appeal of books

Perhaps the most Instagrammable bookstore of them all is the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. The store opened its current location in downtown LA in 2011 and is a book-loving Instagrammer’s dream. The sprawling two-story, 22,000-square-foot store features giant structures made of books that make for perfect photographs. Perusing the Last Bookstore geotag on Instagram, you’ll see hundreds of photos of shoppers peeking through the store’s famed book window or standing in a tunnel made of books.

Katie Orphan, a manager and buyer at the Last Bookstore, told me, “When we were designing the structures, it was very much done with a sense of whimsy; we wanted to create a space that felt magical and surprising. The upstairs — we call it the labyrinth — was designed to make people feel like they were getting lost in a world of books.”

The structures were designed before Instagram had become a part of our everyday lives, but Orphan says that over time, they became so popular on the platform that they now regularly attract visitors who come there solely for the ’gram. She also says the bookstore inspires such deep loyalty that bibliophile couples frequently reach out to her to have their engagement photos taken at the store.

“We get so many people who come to the store to get those Instagram shots, and then my job is to try and capture them with our actual books and our actual inventory so they buy books,” says Orphan, who hopes people will discover “a title they didn’t know about before.” She says she spends a lot of time thinking about visual merchandising and the layout of book displays in the store in the hope of trying to convert Instagram visitors into book purchasers.

Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic, opened in 2017 by author Emma Straub and her husband Michael Fusco-Straub, is just over a year old but has already become one of Brooklyn’s most celebrated bookstores. For them, Instagram has been core to their strategy since day one: The store’s marketing manager, Colleen Callery, told me the founders launched their social media channels before the store even opened its doors. “They had been doing sneak peeks, getting people excited, which was all really helpful in terms of creating buzz,” Callery said.

“People really underestimate the value of social media in terms of creating a brand and growing a brand,” she said, noting that she constantly thinks about how things in the store will look on social media when working with Fusco-Straub on the design and visual elements of the store. “He comes from a design background, he used to design book covers, so I think he’s really attuned to how things look. It’s definitely important to me to make things look cohesive. I like being able to create a feel for the store for people who maybe aren’t even able to visit.”

In a way, Books Are Magic has become a lifestyle brand. Callery said the store’s extremely Instagrammy name has been a boon for selling branded merch because it sounds “almost like a mantra; it’s a disposition where people are like, yes, I can believe in that.” People swarm to buy Books Are Magic merch, from their pastel blue-and-pink mugs, which sold out as soon as they went on sale, to their pastel pink “Books Are Magic” tote bags — so popular that a woman came into the store and bought 100 to sell at a pop-up shop in Japan. New York magazine declared the Books Are Magic tote bag a “status tote,” one that quietly telegraphs your sophistication to anyone who sees you, even if you’ve never actually purchased a book from the store.

And then, splashed across the exterior of the store, is a black wall mural with “Books Are Magic” emblazoned on it in a millennial pink font. It’s what you’d call an “Instagram wall” — a photogenic spot that shoppers and random passersby alike can’t resist. It’s also free marketing for Books Are Magic; the store gets its logo splashed across thousands of New Yorkers’ Instagram accounts every day without lifting a finger. But despite all their planning and social media savvy, the staffers say that when designing it, they had no idea the wall would go viral: “I don’t think anyone was really thinking, oh, this’ll be a good Instagram wall. It was more just like we want something fun outside,” Callery said, “But then of course people were like, yes, this is perfect!”

Both Books Are Magic and the Last Bookstore said they didn’t build their stores for Instagram, but the Instagrammers found them anyway. Instagram virality ended up being surprisingly helpful in bringing more foot traffic into stores from a social media-savvy crowd looking for a photo — and the stores then work to convert those visitors into shoppers who buy a book or two (or maybe just an Instagrammable tote bag or mug) while they’re there.

And as Raffaelli explains, authors also play a vital role in this ecosystem. “What you start seeing is that there are these communities created with the bookseller connected to their consumer, but also the third link is the author. … Authors are also building online followers and community through particularly Twitter, somewhat on Facebook, and through Instagram.” Books Are Magic owner Emma Straub, who is also the author of novels like The Vacationers and Modern Lovers, says she hopes readers appreciate and value her authenticity on Instagram.

“I think there are people who do [social media] in a calculated way where they have plans and people who give them advice on how to do it. ... I do it in an extremely haphazard, natural way,” says Straub of her approach to Instagram. “I just post willy-nilly. And I don’t know if anyone enjoys my social media presence, but I think if they do, it’s because they can see that it’s genuine. I have never posed 30 times for someone to take my picture and then pretended it’s a selfie; I don’t use filters. It’s very as-is.”

The Instagramification of everything has been good for indie bookstores

Is the moral of this story that we’re all self-absorbed millennials who just want to show off on Instagram? Absolutely not! One of the undeniable facts of living in our modern times is that Instagram has become a part of how we present ourselves to the world. And even though the phrase “personal brand” is kind of gross, nearly everyone thinks about their online self-presentation at least a little bit, whether we want to admit it or not.

Yes, there might be an element of vanity to the modern quest to get the perfect Instagram photo. But there’s also a thriving — and growing — community of book lovers on Instagram who use the platform to share their love of reading, connect with other bookworms, and support their local independent stores.

I, too, have participated in nearly every trend mentioned in this story: I have a color-coded bookshelf. I’ve taken pictures at Books Are Magic and the Last Bookstore. I have documented the 50-plus books I read in 2018 on my Instagram account. But I also make an effort to buy books at the indie bookstores in my neighborhood in Brooklyn: the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Greenlight Books in Fort Greene, and, of course, Books Are Magic. And yeah, maybe I’ll take a photo while I’m there too. If it helps bookstores sell more books and encourages people to read more books, that’s a win for everyone. Independent booksellers, authors, and readers alike all seem to benefit from the Instagramification of bookstores.

After all, you can’t really Instagram an e-book.

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