Bookstore Tourism Takes Off: Grassroots Effort Benefits Independent Bookstores, Libraries, and Bibliophiles

By Portzline, Larry | American Libraries, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Bookstore Tourism Takes Off: Grassroots Effort Benefits Independent Bookstores, Libraries, and Bibliophiles


Portzline, Larry, American Libraries


Whenever I lead one of my "bookstore road trips," I always offer a presentation at the front of the bus on the way to our destination, whether it's New York City, Washington, D.C., or the Brandywine region of southeastern Pennsylvania. And the first question I ask the 50 or so bibliophiles who've come along for the ride is, "How many of you are completely and utterly addicted to books?" Invariably, just about every hand on the bus goes up.

Next I ask, "How many of you have piles and piles of books on the floor at home because you ran out of shelf space a long time ago?" The same hands shoot right back up again, and by now, everyone is laughing. "You too?" they ask each other, grinning.

It's a real bonding experience. Booklovers who were strangers just moments before now find that they're kindred spirits. That shameless love of all things literary is one of the reasons why my "bookstore tourism" concept has taken off in the past few years. What started as a lark--a one-day bus trip in July 2003 to the bookstores of Greenwich Village in Manhattan, sponsored by a college where I teach part-time--has grown into a national grassroots movement.

The idea is simple: Booklovers don't just love books, they love the places that sell them. New or used, rare or radical, there are all kinds of bookstores out there just waiting to be discovered by new customers. And, as bookstore tourism has neatly demonstrated since that first excursion, hoards of bibliophiles are quite eager to sign up, pay a nominal fee, and ride on a luxury motorcoach to cities and towns with fun, interesting, and unique independent bookshops that they never knew existed.

In a nutshell, this is how the trips work: When we meet the bus early in the morning I give everyone a brochure and map listing all of the bookstores at our destination (Greenwich Village has around 20 within walking distance; Washington's Georgetown and Dupont Circle have around 15 between them). Then, when we arrive a couple of hours later, our participants scatter and are on their own to browse as many bookstores as they want, have lunch, and enjoy the cityscape until we meet up again for the ride home. If the group has dinner together (a fun option), it often turns into a show-and-tell session with everyone passing around their new finds and comparing notes on the bookshops they visited. Later, as they file slowly off the bus--tired from their travels and weighed down with bags full of books--they smile and tell me, "Thank you so much for doing this. I can't wait to do it again." Most also express a deeper appreciation for independent booksellers--one of the reasons I started doing this in the first place.

Unfortunately, many locally owned bookshops around the country are closing their doors, primarily because of competition from the megachains and internet giants that dominate the industry, but also because of high rents, low readership, and the decay of many downtowns due to suburban overdevelopment. While bookstore tourism is by no means a panacea for what ails the bookselling market, it can nevertheless help to raise the public's awareness of indie bookstores, offer an impressive range of outreach opportunities for literary-minded organizations large and small, and just as important, bring together those who share a love of books and the written word.

A catchy concept

The concept is catching on. At my bookstore tourism panel at BookExpo America in Washington, D.C., last May, industry veterans came out to voice their support and encourage others to get involved. Len Vlahos, director of the American Booksellers Association's BookSense.com, said the effort fits the ABA's mission of promoting the "passion, personality, character, knowledge, and community" that independent bookstores embody. (He stressed during the session that he would like to talk to groups that sponsor bookstore trips so the ABA can track the movement's success. …

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