by Grant Moser
It doesn’t seem like the last seven years would have been easy for independent bookstores across the country. Apart from the competition from big box stores and the omnipresence of Amazon.com, there has also been a recession to deal with and the recent rise in popularity of e-readers that allow customers to download digital books wherever they are.
However, according to Sheila Allen Avelin, 41, owner of Big Blue Marble Bookstore at 551 Carpenter Lane (near Greene Street) in Mt. Airy, independent bookstores have been holding, and even growing, their market share across the country.
Her store’s secret of success is that “we’re selling something none of those others [big box stores and internet sites] are selling, which is a reason to love your neighborhood. Bookstores are a reason to love your neighborhood. That’s really it.”
Allen Avelin has had a life-long love affair with books. She learned to read on her own at age 4, and since then has always seen books as her companions. (Sheila grew up in Washington, D.C., although her mother is from the Main Line.) One of her great pleasures in life is reading a really good book and then sharing it with someone else.
She found jobs in bookstores and attended the University of Pennsylvania to earn her Master’s degree in English. She taught English literature at Friends Select School in center city from 1999 until 2002, when she and her partner, Alexandra (“Alex”) Volin Avelin, moved from Mt. Airy to Wisconsin so Alex could pursue her Master’s degree. (Alex is currently the English department chair at the elite Julia R. Masterman School downtown.)
While in Wisconsin, Allen Avelin realized she didn’t want to teach anymore, so she began to think of how to combine her love of literature with a new career. Luckily for Mt. Airy booklovers, the plan was always to come back to the area after her partner’s degree was finished.
“Mt. Airy didn’t have its own bookstore,” she said, “and while there was a Borders in Chestnut Hill then, I didn’t think it was a particularly good Borders. I researched the area and saw there were lots of people with not only college degrees but also multiple college degrees. Seemed like a pretty good place to open a bookstore. Big Blue Marble Bookstore opened in 2005 and has seen growth every year, except for 2008 and 2009 when flat was the new growth. It’s clearly a neighborhood that wanted a bookstore.”
The store specializes in progressive and multicultural titles, and is known for its diverse selection. However, Allen Avelin argues that Big Blue Marble is a general bookstore — with a slant.
“We have a science fiction section; we just tilt it towards feminism. Half our sales are children’s books. We stock books our staff is interested in reading, and because of the neighborhood being so open and diverse, we have a lot of interest in different sorts of books. It just reflects the neighborhood we live in.”
This was the goal Allen Avelin had in mind when she opened the store, and she quickly saw that play into her book selection. She had planned an ecology section but saw that books with titles like “50 Things to Change the Planet” weren’t selling. She realized that it wasn’t that people weren’t interested in the subject, but that her customers already knew that kind of information. They wanted more advanced books, like how to do backyard homesteading.
The community is the backbone of the store for Allen Avelin. “The independent bookstore model has become bookstore as community center. My first hire was an event coordinator. We take that very seriously.”
Big Blue Marble hosts a local author series about once a month, holds poetry events such as a monthly poetry group and an open-mic invitational poetry series, has three books clubs (first-person memoirs, women authors, young adult books read by adults) run by staffers, holds a kid’s literary festival in April and has hosted book launches.
The rapid changes in the publishing and bookselling industry due to technology haven’t been lost on Allen Avelin.
“I think the publishing industry is finally moving out of its panic about technology. I think the book as a gift object is not going to go away, and in fact will make the industry focus more on the physical appearance of books. Books are going to be more beautiful, and illustrations every chapter or so, which fell out of fashion, are coming back, I think. Those mass-market, cheap $8 paperbacks for the airplane that are disposable will die, however.”
But Sheila is not ready to write the obituary for all physical books yet. “People are forgetting about how the book as a physical object is something that we still like. There’s less eye fatigue; there’s the smell and feel of books; there’s the sensation of getting closer to the end. You can’t finish your e-book and give it to your friend; it’s in your e-reader. Some people like an e-book so much they come in to buy the actual book.”
As Big Blue Marble continues, Sheila hopes to find a way to expand into more floor space and do larger events. She wants the store to become a destination, not just for the Mt. Airy community but also for people in the entire region.
For more information, call 215-844-1870 or visit www.bigbluemarblebooks.com.