It turns out that the person you saw reading a paperback in Congress Park the other day isn’t a digital luddite but following a hot trend. Yes, over the past decade, reading—particularly that of physical books such as paperbacks and hardcovers—has been on the rise. A Quartz article published late last year reports that in 2017, print book sales were up 10.8 percent from four years prior. While sales at Barnes & Noble and other large American booksellers are still in steep decline, the number of small, independent bookstores mushrooming up in the country increased 35 percent between 2009 and 2015; and physical book sales have increased every year since 2013 (comparatively, e-book sales dropped 10 percent between 2016 and 2017). And just last October, bookstore sales increased by more than 7 percent.
One such independent bookshop, Downtown Saratoga Springs’ Northshire Bookstore, which also has a store in Manchester, VT, has seen “gradual, very modest growth” over the past five years, says General Manager Nancy Scheemaker. Anecdotally, though, Scheemaker tells saratoga living that she’s seen a lot of returning customers, many of whom are excited that Saratoga has its own independent bookstore outpost. “People thank us a lot,” says Scheemaker. “They thank us for being here, for being open to them.”
It’s not all about sales data, though. The simple act of choosing and engaging with physical books is invaluable to the experience of reading, Scheemaker notes. At Northshire, the shopping experience—whether it be sitting in a big comfy chair, paging through new books all afternoon or reading a picture book to a child in the children’s section—is what makes the store so attractive to customers. “I think what’s really important here—because I watch it happen a lot—is that process of discovery that’s possible in a real store. There’s no algorithm choosing [books] for you.” Scheemaker points to one of the many staff recommendation slips adorning the bookshelves at the store. “These are personal recommendations,” she says. “That’s really different from other kinds of [book] selling.”
Although today’s consumers are even more plugged in than ever before, one important reason they could be flocking back to the OG book is, ironically, because of that increased screen time. That’s according to Vox, which notes that more people are making a conscious effort to power down the time spent on their phones and computers, and that’s where reading is coming in. Doubly ironic, Instagram, an app you have to be on a smartphone to enjoy, is a major signifier of this shift: new hashtags and online communities are cropping up for readers to post their current literary escapades. “Many [people] can’t resist telling a story [on social media] about themselves as smart, worldly, and well-read,” notes the story.
Northshire’s Scheemaker agrees. “Customers walk away with their stack of new books in their arms, [thinking], this is really a refuge from our screen society,” she says. “They want to get away from the intensity of that. I think shopping in a real bookstore is a much more personal experience than scrolling through [an e-reader]. Try to experience a children’s picture book, really experience it, digitally. You don’t get it.”