#Bookstagram Connects Readers and Boosts Indie Book Stores

I love books. For Rewire, I’ve written about why young adult literature is my favorite genre through which to discover diverse authors, as well as my favorite wine books to inform smart summer drinking. I’ve interviewed Jill Filopovic, one of my favorite nonfiction authors, and I’ve extolled on why it is that everyone still loves the Brontë sisters more than 150 years after Emily first published “Wuthering Heights.”

Person reading and drinking tea on yellow rug Indie Book Stores pbs rewire
Indie bookstores took a hit when Amazon took off, but they’re steadily rebounding.

Along with my love of books comes a love of bookstores. The first real job I ever had was at an independent bookstore, and a decade-plus later, a good indie bookstore is still my happy place. I make a point to visit the local indies on vacation, and I follow several of my favorites on Instagram for recommended reading. When I’m looking for a new read, I turn to my Instagram for ideas on what to prioritize during a haul at my local bookstore.

This Saturday is Independent Bookstore Day, a celebration for the book nerds of the world that has taken place on the last Saturday of April since it was originated in California in 2014. In many ways, Independent Bookstore Day is the real-life iteration of #bookstagram—a social media hashtag turned movement (and for some, lifestyle) that started to proliferate Instagram around the same time Independent Bookstore Day was established.

“Between 2014 and 2015, Instagram became one of the more prolific social platforms for readers to connect with new books,” according to Forbes.

Today, the hashtag #bookstagram has been used at least 19 million times. Instagram users are #currentlyreading more than 1.5 million books, and independent bookstores, which have thrived despite the challenges facing the retail industry at large, are banking on Instagram more and more in order to build a dedicated customer base and ultimately sustain healthy sales.

Indie stores bouncing back

Amazon launched in 1995. By 2009, the number of independent booksellers had fallen 40 percent, according to a recent National Public Radio report. But from 2009 to 2015, the number rebounded by 35 percent.

Exterior Literati book shop Indie Book Stores pbs rewire
Independent bookstore Literati opened in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2013. Photo courtesy of Literati.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to the University of Michigan, is a book town, but that didn’t make it immune to the “retail apocalypse” of the early aughts. The first Borders was headquartered in Ann Arbor until it closed in 2011. The beloved Shaman Drum bookstore, which operated in Ann Arbor for 29 years, closed in 2009.

Then, in 2013, Literati Bookstore opened shop in town. Claire Tobin, 23, is the store’s marketing manager and oversees the store’s social media presence. In March, just in time for Literati’s fifth anniversary, the bookstore was tapped to be Belletrists’s March Bookstore of the Month.

Belletrist, a social-media driven book club co-founded by movie star and avid reader Emma Roberts, “celebrates great books and the people who read them” each month by featuring a different book and a different bookstore for its 173,000 followers on Instagram to discuss and rally around.

The book up for discussion amongst the “Belletrist babes” in March was “The Ghost Notebooks” by Ben Dolnick. During a regular day, Literati takes in anywhere from five to 10 online orders, Tobin said, but during the March partnership, “I want to say upwards of 100 people ordered that book through us, which was pretty awesome.

“That’s a big bump for an indie bookstore. We got hundreds of new Instagram followers.”

Today, Literati’s follower count is pushing 20,000.

Share your ‘shelfies’

This real-world efficacy of an online community such as Belletrist is due, at least in part, to the evolution of “social reading,” and the ways in which book lovers—and the stores they frequent—collectively utilize social media, especially Instagram, as a way to participate in the literary zeitgeist. Everyone’s process is different, but the practice of social reading allows people to share in a cultural moment with people they admire and feel a kinship with, regardless of their social clout.

Interior Literati book shop Indie Book Stores pbs rewire
Books line the walls inside Literati. Instagram activity around books has helped improve consciousness about local stores. Photo courtesy of Literati.

“The Belletrist thing is especially cool for getting young people excited about books and reading,” Tobin said. “I think there’s a lot of excitement about shopping small and shopping local, and I think people my age—especially now with social media—they’re just getting excited about it. They love our space, they love the aesthetics of our space, and it kind of came full circle with the Belletrist stuff.”

In addition to peppering Literati’s feed with gorgeous #shelfies and stacks of the store’s most recent bestsellers, Tobin maintains several thematic Instagram stories for the store, including a digital version of current staff picks, a mainstay of indie bookstores usually found as close to the checkout line as possible. She said people come into the store with screenshots of the Instagram stories, ready to buy.

“So many people have this false assumption that (indie bookstores) are all dying and none of us are thriving,” she said. “That’s really not true. The bookstores that aren’t thriving are the bookstores that aren’t embracing this new digital area of social reading—that’s what’s really getting us into this new era of book selling as this very much alive thing.”

Love books? Discover “The Great American Read,” a new eight-part PBS television series and nationwide campaign that explores the joy of reading through the lens of America’s 100 best-loved novels, as voted on by the public. Premiering Tuesday, May 22. 

Kaylen Ralph

Kaylen Ralph is the co-founder, editorial development director and brand director of The Riveter Magazine, a longform women’s lifestyle magazine in print and online. She works as a personal stylist for Anthropologie. Follow her on Instagram @kaylenralph for books and fashion. You can also find her on Twitter at @kaylenralph.