Theresa Unsworth knows the book business has changed. Millions of books are available at a moment’s notice. Thrillers and romance novels can be purchased with a swipe of the finger, science fiction and historical tomes procured with just a few clicks of the mouse.
But there are some things the digital world can’t duplicate, like the crisp sound of a page flipping or the soft crack the binding makes when you open a new hardcover for the first time. And Unsworth says that is where independent bookstores have an edge.
“People still want books. They want real paper, and they want real books,” said Unsworth, the owner of Sunshine Booksellers. “They like to talk to people who read books, who know books and who can chat about books.”
Sunshine Booksellers is one of a handful of independent bookstores sprinkled throughout Southwest Florida. And while digital books and online shopping are all the rage, experts say there’s been a resurgence in the good old-fashioned bookstore.
“We’re seeing a little bounce,” says Wanda Jewell, the executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. “I think people are beginning to understand that you can’t keep the unique sort of boutique places without spending money there. They’re not just there to enjoy the ambience, and they can’t be there without financial support.”
There are at least a half-dozen independent bookstores in the region. Sunshine Booksellers corners the market in Collier County, with two shops on Marco Island. Sanibel Island might be considered Lee County’s independent bookstore hub, with two stores—Gene’s Books, and MacIntosh Books and Paper—located a stone’s throw from each other. Echo Vintage Books & Vinyl Records is a funky find in Fort Myers.
Unsworth and her husband bought Sunshine Booksellers more than a decade ago. The shop is a bit like a general store, with gifts and other odds and ends sprinkled throughout. Still, the books come first, and Unsworth describes their selection as “good, intelligent beach reading.”
Like Sunshine Booksellers, MacIntosh Books and Paper is considered a general interest bookstore and focuses on books perfect for beach reading. But Susie Holly, the owner of the Sanibel Island shop, says she also likes to stock the shelves with books by local authors, about fishing in the local waters and shelling.
“We offer the opportunity to discover new books that customers might not ever know about without input from their community booksellers,” says Holly, the fourth owner of the store, which opened in 1960. “We are in a position to know our customers and what they might like to read. The books we have on our shelves are carefully curated. We hear all the time from customers that we have a wonderful selection. There are not so many to be overwhelming, but the books we have are going to be worth looking at.”
New York native Nancy Eltin has been visiting MacIntosh since the mid-’60s. The management has changed, but the store’s ambience remains the same. And that makes each trip feel like she’s coming back to see an old friend whenever she visits Sanibel.
“Even if I go in there and don’t find what I like, I still find it worthwhile,” she says. “The staff are more often than not familiar with a range (of books).”
That homey feeling is something that resonates with many long-time customers. Nancy Kennedy said she gets it every time she goes to MacIntosh and another small bookstore she frequents.
“I’m from Maine, and going to MacIntosh is like going home,” says Kennedy. “It’s very touching to be part of a group that is happy to see you when you walk into the door.”
A few minutes away is Gene’s Books. The massive bookstore consists of three small houses, filled to the brim with books. They’re stacked precariously along the walkways, forcing customers to hold their breath and inch their way for fear of knocking over a towering pile of beloved favorites.
This is the place for mystery lovers, a whole house filled with mysteries from all corners of the world. Love science fiction? Then head to “Middle-earth,” an equally stuffed building with an eclectic mix of science fiction, literature and true crime. The third house is all about history.
Located about an hour up the road from the Sanibel book haven, Sandman Book Company is taking every step it can to make sure it stands out. Traditional book signings are replaced with open-house-style events, giving patrons a chance to mix and mingle with the authors. Storytime is princess time, with a different fairytale princess visiting the store each month.
“We spent a lot of time researching other stores and found the areas where we can improve,” says Heidi Lange, who, along with her husband, started Sandman Book Company in Punta Gorda in 2006. “We do trade-in differently, local author signings differently. We do everything differently.”
At 7,000 square feet, the bookstore is one of the largest in Southwest Florida. About 80 percent of the collection consists of used books, and Lange says her team is “extremely fussy about the condition.”
While the shop has something for everyone, science fiction fans may be most excited to check out the store’s selection. A lover of the genre, Lange says they have “more science fiction on the shelf than most bookstores.”
Although the store boasts a collection of 100,000 books, Lange cringes when asked for a book recommendation. She gets asked for suggestions daily and always has one—a science fiction selection up her sleeve or a thriller in her back pocket. Despite a deep well of personal favorites to choose from, Lange says it pains her just a bit to tell others what to read.
“I think people should read whatever they want to read,” she declares. But if customers ask, she answers.
Even as boutique bookstores come back in vogue, there are challenges. Despite being in the same location since 2009, Lange says many people still don’t know about her store. And then there’s Amazon, which ships books directly to your doorstop. And it’s not just the convenience and the often discounted prices, but also the advent of the Kindle that threw a hitch in the traditional bookstore model.
But to some extent, bookstore owners say e-readers are just a supplement for hardcore literary lovers. Sure, lots of people own them. But readers don’t necessarily like to take them to the beach or to the pool. And everyone still loves the feel of a crisp page between the fingertips.
“I think you can buy a book most anywhere, but it’s hard to talk about books. You (have to) find a place where you can go, hear about what people are reading and what they like,” explains Jewell, with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. “An independent bookstore is the only place to do that.”
Jewell says the ability to curate niche collections is just one of the reasons bookstores are thriving. The other reason? Bookstore owners are no longer just book lovers.
“I think the book sellers coming up now are smart business people, whereas 20 years ago most people in the book business loved books, and that was enough,” she said. “Now it takes a savvy business person, who also loves books.”
—Emily Rose contributed to this story