Local bookstores are on the rebound, including one in East Atlanta

When East Atlanta's only bookstore closed, one neighbor decided to step in

After being hit hard by the world of e-commerce, independent bookstores throughout the country have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years.

As a kid growing up in Florida, Kendra Gayle Lee would hide behind her dad’s La-Z-Boy chair and read Trixie Belden mysteries. It’s where he read the newspaper, so it had the best light — and it got her out of setting the table for dinner.

Tagging along on fact finding missions with the fictional young detective is where Lee learned to love a good story.

She’s followed that passion throughout her adult life: first as a college instructor, then as a freelance writer and now as a small business owner.

In September, Lee opened Bookish — a new used bookstore in East Atlanta. For someone who describes herself as being “risk averse,” opening up a brick and mortar bookstore in 2019 may not seem like a natural move, but Lee said this chapter in her own story seemed to write itself.

“It felt risky. But everything kept falling in place to indicate that this was the right thing to do,” Lee, who is 44, said. “Things just kept happening in a way that I would have had to absolutely deny the serendipity of it all.”

The store is located at 1188 Glenwood Ave SE, in a small brick building that was once Burks Jewelers and later an appointment-only nail salon.

East Atlanta’s main drag is dotted with a number of longstanding, locally-owned businesses: restaurants, music venues, a coffee shop and even a pet store, but there was nowhere to buy books — at least by the time Lee moved to the neighborhood in 2018.

There had previously been a bookstore in the area, but the owners of Bound To Be Read Books closed the store for personal reasons in 2015 after more than a decade in the neighborhood. And now, even the community's library branch is closed for renovations.

So Lee started asking around, if she built it — would the neighborhood support a local place to shop, read and gather?

She says the answer she heard then, and in the two months since opening the door beneath large lettering that reads “every story matters,” is a resounding “yes.”

After being hit hard by the world of e-commerce, independent bookstores throughout the country have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Between 2009 and 2015, more than 570 independent bookstores opened across the country, which was a 35% uptick after years in decline, according to the American Booksellers Association.

And between 2016 and 2017, sales at independent bookstores rose 2.6%.

And Atlanta is no exception. There are the stalwarts in the scene, like Charis Books & More, which recently found a new home at Agnes Scott College after decades in Little Five Points, and A Cappella Books, which has been in business in Atlanta for 30 years.

But throughout the metro area, there are a number of new booksellers popping up as well: Like Books By The Pound in Lawrenceville or For Keeps on Auburn Avenue, which specializes in rare African American literature.

For Lee in East Atlanta, she hopes Bookish — an adjective she uses to describe herself and a play on the fact that the store sells more than just books — continues to grow into a place for the community to gather.

Currently, the store hosts four book clubs, two for adults and two for kids, as well as a podcast group.

In addition to used books, which can be donated for store credit, Bookish is beginning to special order some new books as well, which Lee says allows her to bring in more diverse authors and titles.

“But we will continue to be by and large a used bookstore. And I think that is important because it allows everyone access to having books in their home,” she said.

In addition to the smell of well-loved books, Bookish has the aroma of the wood used to craft the shelves (purposely not too tall for shorter shoppers like Lee) and locally made candles, which the store stocks along with other goods from local makers.

The walls, painted blue, are adorned with work from local artists that’s all for sale. Lee says every part of the space, down to the unfinished concrete floors, is intentional. She wants it to be inviting, but unassuming — the way she describes East Atlanta.

Last Friday, some members of the community gathered for the store’s second live author event featuring author Jeff Haws. Lee sat among the crowd and realized her gamble is paying off.

“I could just observe. And I was overwhelmed that something I had wanted so badly and something that felt like such a huge personal risk had happened in a way that I could really be proud of,” she said.

As a kid, reading allowed Lee to imagine life as a detective while solving mysteries with Trixie Belden.

Decades later, she hopes she can bring that same sense of wonderment to her Atlanta community — one story at a time.