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Bookstores band together for Independent Bookstore Day

Is the bookstore crawl the new pub crawl?

A man peruses a window display at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, one of the many Bay Area stores participating in Independent Bookstore Day.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

For Catherine Bull, doing a bookstore crawl is like going on an “epic road trip.” For the past four years, she’s joined her mom in Seattle for a full day of bookstore visits, starting with a 6:15 am ferry over to Bainbridge Island, on a carefully plotted car route that takes them until 9 or 10 at night. It’s become as “embedded a tradition as birthdays or Christmas” for the book-loving pair. Her mother brings the snacks, a mix of protein for energy and sugar for fun, while Bull makes sure they stay on track to hit 17 stores in a single day, with enough time to browse at each one (this year, 21 stores are participating).

Bull is one of many who participate in such crawls across the country, most of which take place on the last Saturday in April, christened Independent Bookstore Day, which bills itself as a “one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country.” According to Andrea Vuleta, the executive director of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association and one of the organizers of the first California-only Independent Bookstore Day in 2014, the event was modeled on Record Store Day as a way to highlight the diverse offerings of bookstores in local communities.

The celebration has grown from a California-only 95-store event in 2014 to 353 participating national bookstores in 2015 to 580 in 2019, says Samantha Schoech, program director for Independent Bookstore Day. By offering exclusive merchandise available only on that day (some free, some for purchase), such as this year’s We Should All Be Feminists pouch and “Fight Evil, Read Books” pins, along with entertainment ranging from a live jazz band to drag queen story time, bookstores put special effort into courting customers.

A group of people cross the street and walk toward Pegasus Books, a classic independent bookstore in downtown Berkeley, California.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

2019 bookstore crawls and passport programs will take place April 27 in Austin, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Connecticut, Indiana, Rhode Island, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, St. Louis, Tucson, the Twin Cities, Vermont, and Washington, DC, most organized by regional bookselling organizations or local bookstores.

Each city’s arrangement differs slightly, but all offer an incentive such as a discount or giveaway entries for visiting multiple stories, usually in a single day (although some regions such as Cape Cod spread the bookish rewards over a longer time period). Austin and Brooklyn will hold afterparties so crawlers can bond with fellow book lovers. To assist bibliophiles in getting around, Metro Boston Bookstore Day organizers arranged a trolley ride for this year’s crawl with two routes each visiting seven bookstores; the 70 available $40 tickets sold out in under a month.

Putting collaboration over competition to join forces in this way can be good for business. “What is important about an event like Independent Bookstore Day is that it cuts through the clutter, the noise, and allows people to notice and focus on how important independent bookstores are,” said Steve Strauss, the author of The Small Business Bible and a USA Today senior small-business columnist. He elaborated on the appeal: “The reason an idea like Independent Bookstore Day works is that it helps generate buzz for the entire industry. A single bookstore might have a difficult time getting traction, attention, but when they all do it together, it helps people notice all the stores who are participating. As with many things in life, we can do more together than we can apart.”

One of the main reasons Bull takes part is the high energy around what’s usually such a solitary act. Even on that early morning ferry, she’s surrounded by others excited to see what bookish finds await them. “It’s so convivial, and such a community feeling. If you see someone again at another bookstore that you saw on the ferry, it’s like running into an old friend, even if you don’t know their name,” she said.

Then during the course of the day, “The party atmosphere can’t be understated.” Some stores serve morning mimosas; others have special readings and author events; and even sales are livened up in unique ways, such as rotating discounts every hour based on author last names. Last year, Bull’s sister and 9-year-old nephew joined them; the foursome competed in one store’s trivia challenge, with Bull handling the classics while her nephew answered questions on modern books.

Not all bookstore crawls happen in April. Science fiction author and Writers With Drinks reading series host Charlie Jane Anders organized the first San Francisco Bookstore and Chocolate Crawl in February 2012, as a way to bring literary culture back to bookstores. That first event drew 100 people — a success, with the only hiccup being that not all the bookstores knew such a large crowd would be descending on them (although one that did had a chocolate fountain waiting).

After a long hiatus, the sugar-fueled literary crawl returned in 2018, with additional organizers Maggie Tokuda-Hall, a writer and former children’s department director at the San Francisco independent bookstore chain Books Inc., and Jackie Risley, who works in marketing at a software company. Now the event happens every four months, visiting at least three bookstores within a 2-mile radius.

“We get a lot of people who just moved here, looking to get to know the city better, and we get longtime residents excited to meet like-minded folk,” says Tokuda-Hall. “As a longtime indie bookseller, it means a lot to me to witness people meeting an indie for the first time. It feels a little like introducing two friends you’re pretty sure are gonna hit it off. Like, no pressure, but you guys might get married and have a million babies. Except instead of a heteronormative tax tradition, it’s buying books.” The crawl has even included a charitable component, with each bookstore setting aside books on a table available for purchase and donation to a nonprofit organization such as the Prisoners Literature Project and the Homeless Youth Alliance.

For Lynn Mooney, co-owner of the Chicago feminist bookstore Women & Children First, Independent Bookstore Day and its associated crawl offers a welcome influx of customers, so many that they’ve since suspended programming on that Saturday so authors don’t have to compete with the crowds to be heard. And they got a boost from a surprising source: Mooney said that after Amazon opened its first Midwestern physical bookstore in Chicago in March 2017, shoppers opposed to the “everything store” helped pave the way for successful crawls of independently owned brick-and-mortar stores. “It was like they were almost looking for new ways to show their support and kind of preach the gospel of indie bookstores to their friends and get them excited,” says Mooney. These days, customers ask about the crawl schedule before flyers are even printed.

Naturally, social media, specifically Instagram, is a key part of many of these bookstore crawls. Walden Hagelman, executive director of the nonprofit Austin Bookstore Crawl, organizes her city’s crawl around scavenger hunt items at each store. Participants snap a photo with the Hulk at a comic book store, among other attractions, and use the hashtag #ATXBookstoreCrawl as a prize entry.

Bridget Boswell-Muntz, a first-grade teacher and graduate student in library information science, has participated in the past two Austin bookstore crawls, documenting them on her Instagram account. She likened the scavenger hunt, where the items are revealed the day of the crawl, to “a bookstore escape room” because it “puts fun pressure and time constraints on bookstore crawlers to find certain items or locations in the bookstores and document their success via social media.” It’s also provided the opportunity for the native Austinite to explore parts of the city she wasn’t familiar with.

Solid State Books, an independent bookstore in Washington, DC, is participating in 2019’s Independent Bookstore Day.
Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images

For bookstagrammer and co-host of the book exchange event Book Carousel NYC Anthony Piacentini, the crawls are a way to socialize and shop simultaneously. Piacentini has added more people to their book crawl entourage since their first in 2017, and will be part of a group of eight this year. “It’s definitely more fun to spend the day with friends, especially with all the traveling in between stores, which can get really draining,” they said. At last year’s Brooklyn Book Crawl afterparty, Piacentini met someone they’d known only via Instagram, and became real-life friends. “Usually you talk about what you’ve bought that day, what you’re currently reading, or what book you can’t wait to come out.”

For many participants, getting to talk about books with fellow book nerds and bookstore staffers nonstop is one of the driving forces behind bookstore crawls. “There’s a big difference between talking to a real person and saying I like this about this book and this about this book, what do you think I might like next?” said Bull. With a bookstore staffer, customers can delve into the nuances of why they liked a particular book, rather than using an online algorithm to suggest one that may or may not suit their tastes. One of Bull’s favorite bookstore crawl memories is discovering a new edition of The Tales of Olga Da Polga, a book she read “a million times” as a kid, and bonding over it with a bookseller who was also a fan.

Bull has been keeping track of the books she reads since 1999 and will be coming to this year’s bookstore crawl armed with a list of those authors to find other titles by them or related ones. This year, though, while keeping the day epic, Bull is stepping back from the title of “champion” and “only” hitting nine or 10 stores. “The one downside of doing the massive number of stores is that you don’t have time to enjoy some of the events,” she lamented, such as a store that put out typewriters so visitors could write their own poetry.

At their core, bookstore crawls offer book lovers an offline way to share their favorite hobby. “I think people really love having this opportunity once a year to be in the company of all these other passionate readers,” Mooney says. “There’s energy around that. It feels like community.”

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