Best-selling author Leah Johnson assesses a trend of new independent bookstores in Indianapolis by saying, “It’s about time.”
Johnson plans to open her own store, Loudmouth Books, later this month in the Herron-Morton neighborhood. The Ben Davis High School and Indiana University alum made her debut as a novelist with 2020’s “You Should See Me in a Crown.” Time magazine named “Crown” as one of the 100 best young adult books of all time.
Loudmouth is one of five independent bookstores expected to open locally within a year’s span.
“If you look at any city that is a comparable size to Indianapolis, they have three to four times as many bookstores as we do,” Johnson said. “We’re behind. I think we’re just now catching up to the pace of what it should feel like to have a bustling, thriving literary community in a major mid-sized city.”
In addition to Loudmouth, the wave of new retailers includes Golden Hour Books, Dream Palace Books & Coffee, The Whispering Shelf and Tomorrow Bookstore.
That’s not to say the city is starting from zero independent shops. Indy Reads Books, 1066 Virginia Ave., is a not-for-profit business that originally opened on Mass Ave in 2012. The youth-themed Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore, 5619 N. Illinois St., opened in 1986. Irvington Vinyl and Books sells records and printed works at 202 S. Audubon Road. And the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library carries books by the iconic Indianapolis author and like-minded storytellers.
Julia Whitehead, the Vonnegut museum’s founder and CEO, said she doesn’t view bookstores as competitors. She said Indianapolis needs the stores to attract workers in the growing sectors of tech and health care.
“These different industries are bringing in people from all over the world to work and live in Indianapolis,” she said. “Creating an interesting community requires a variety of arts and cultural experiences. I’m thrilled that entrepreneurs are interested in opening these shops.”
Eric Nolan is the co-founder of Flatland Kitchen Creative Studio, a branding firm that worked with the owners of the Golden Hour and Dream Palace to help launch their shops.
Nolan said the pandemic may have played a role in multiple people pursuing their dreams to open bookstores at about the same time.
“I think people are trying to find new ways to create ‘third spaces,’” Nolan said. “It’s not home. It’s not the office. As places to hang out, bookstores are sort of exploding nationally. They’re some of the most successful small retail businesses right now.”
According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of bookstore companies increased from 1,244 in 2016 to 2,010 in 2022. Last year alone, 179 brick-and-mortar bookstores opened in the United States.
When there’s a spike of similar enterprises, Nolan said brand identity is crucial to not becoming lost in the crowd.
“It takes knowing why you’re doing something and what is unique about your approach to communicate that to an audience,” said Nolan, who founded Flatland Kitchen with his wife, Rebekah Nolan, in 2008. “You want to make sure anyone else will care that you’re doing something.”
Vonnegut Library CEO Whitehead said bookstores deserve our attention.
“There’s so much evidence that reading makes for a better society,” she said. “People over hundreds of years have known what reading does for an individual’s psychological health, but then also what it can do for a community to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes and to have a dialogue around what that means.”
Check out five independent bookstores that are new to the city:
It’s not a coincidence that Loudmouth Books is opening in time for Banned Books Week.
Scheduled Oct. 1-7, Banned Books Week debuted in 1982 as a response to actions that limited access to books in U.S. schools and libraries. The initiative’s mission is listed as “the support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”
Loudmouth founder Johnson, who teaches creative writing at Butler University, said her store represents a response to legislation such as the new Indiana law that makes it easier to ban books from public school libraries. The law facilitates a complaints process for community members, and school librarians can be charged with felonies for not adhering to the rules.
Supporters of the legislation said they want to keep sexually inappropriate material out of school libraries.
Johnson said stories she’s written featuring LGBTQ teenagers have been previously challenged in this context.
“We’re in the midst of one of the most regressive time periods for legislation around book banning that we’ve seen since the Reagan ’80s,” Johnson said. “Part of what we’re trying to do here is assert loudly and proudly that stories for, by and about marginalized people are not going away just because you want them to.”
Loudmouth Books is taking over a 1,200-square-foot space at 212 E. 16th St., a building in the Herron-Morton neighborhood where Tinker Coffee operated from 2014 to 2018.
The shop’s Sept. 30 grand opening will feature an appearance by Atlanta-based author Julian Winters, who’s written about LGBTQ teenagers in novels such as “Running with Lions” and “Right Where I Left You.”
Johnson said she’s routinely notified about people and institutions intent on preventing young people from reading her work, which she characterizes as being focused on “happy queer kids.”
“The feeling is always the same,” Johnson said. “There’s a sense of rage, first and foremost, but also a type of powerlessness that could be debilitating. But that’s why we open a bookstore, because the same laws that allow people to deny service to queer people are the same laws that allow me to sell the very books that a lot of these folks are trying to get rid of. Loudmouth is how I’m taking my power back as a writer.”
Golden Hour Books
In photography, the 60 minutes before sunset and the 60 minutes after sunrise provide “golden hour” conditions for images captured in natural light.
Sara Gelston and Max Somers said the Golden Hour name of their bookstore refers to a feeling they want customers to have.
“It’s that moment in time we always want to be in,” Gelston said. “It’s that time that we’re outside, having a drink, reading a book and talking. If you could pick the moment you want to always be having, it’s that. Our hope is that when people come into the shop, it feels like you’re experiencing a moment like that.”
The owners of Golden Hour Books plan to open the business Oct. 14 at 5208 N. College Ave., a Meridian-Kessler storefront between the Luna Music record store and Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant.
Husband-and-wife team Somers and Gelston are the parents of two children younger than 6, a family status that influenced Golden Hour Books.
“I think we really benefit from being in a neighborhood,” said Gelston, who grew up in Maine and taught creative writing at Butler University from 2016 to 2020. “As parents who love bookstores, we go into so many and immediately realize, ‘Oh, this is not necessarily a place for a child to be.’ We want this to be an excellent bookstore but also a place where kids feel welcome.”
The 1,500-square-foot store will feature two rooms, with one devoted to children’s literature.
Somers, a Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School alum, met Gelston when they were postgraduate students at the University of Illinois. Now working in commercial construction, Somers is overseeing the build-out of the shop specializing in books about art, architecture, poetry and politics.
With branding agency Flatland Kitchen, Somers and Gelston devised a Golden Hour motto of “Books for continuing exploration.”
Gelston, who will manage the store, said visual presentation is important and selecting a book because of its cover isn’t a bad thing.
“We want the covers to do a lot of the talking in our shop,” she said. “People buy books largely based on the way they look and how it feels when you pick them up. Does it feel like a book you want to read? We are very book-y people, and that’s how we pick books.”
Dream Palace Books & Coffee
During the five years since the Thirsty Scholar coffee, beer and wine bar closed in the Penn Arts building, students and faculty members at Herron High School have looked across 16th Street and wondered about what would be next for the corner storefront in the 100-year-old Penn Arts structure.
Taylor Lewandowski, a third-year English teacher at Herron, provided his own answer. In October, Lewandowski will open Dream Palace Books & Coffee at 111 E. 16th St.
Dream Palace will occupy 1,430 square feet, making it a larger space than the 900-square-foot Thirsty Scholar.
Coffee as well as breakfast and lunch food will be available for purchase at the counter where Thirsty Scholar served drinks. A slightly elevated stage at Dream Palace will be used during author events, and some books will be available for purchase in the cafe area.
The expanded room to the east of the cafe will be home to most of Dream Palace’s books.
Lewandowski, who’s co-owner of the business with his father, Robert Lewandowski, and grandfather, Dean Gifford, previously worked at Bloomington’s Caveat Emptor bookstore. Taylor Lewandowski said he has fond memories of visiting Reading Room Books in Wabash, where as a teenager he fostered an appreciation of Southern authors Tennessee Willams and Carson McCullers.
He said the influx of independent bookstores may be a coincidence, but it’s not because of spur-of-the-moment decisions.
“It’s not like I saw these bookstores coming up and thought, ‘Oh, I should do that,’” Lewandowski said. “I’ve dreamed of owning a bookstore since I was 14 years old.”
The cafe operation is expected to generate more than half of Dream Palace’s revenue, according to the Heritage Christian School alum.
The Dream Palace name was inspired by author James Purdy (1914-2009), who was born in Hicksville, Ohio, a town about 20 miles east of Auburn, Indiana. Purdy wrote about the Chicago jazz scene in a story titled “63: Dream Palace,” and the author was known for his depictions of people outside mainstream society.
“I’m trying to create something that I’m not sure we have in Indianapolis,” Lewandowski said of his shop. “It will be an up-to-date bookstore that also highlights small presses and arts-related publications.”
The Whispering Shelf
Lena Burt credits her career in social work for instilling a belief that books should be accessible to as many people as possible.
The Butler University alum who grew up in suburban Chicago plans to make her shop, The Whispering Shelf, a place where books are affordable and, in some cases, free. Customers at the future store, 414 N. College Ave., can expect to find a mix of new and used titles.
“Because of my experience in social work, I recognized that we don’t all come to the table with the same privileges financially or the same privileges academically,” Burt said. “For me, it’s important to have a price point that makes reading available to all different folks.”
The Whispering Shelf debuted last fall as a pop-up business at area events. Burt and her husband, Conner Burt, purchased the Lockerbie Square building in January. Software startup Elate Inc. was the building’s previous occupant.
Early 2024 is projected for an opening date for the store.
Instead of predicting what the store will emphasize in its inventory, Lena Burt said she will invest in the styles of books that are popular with customers.
“As a social worker, you don’t tell your clients how to live their life,” she said. “You learn what’s important to them, and you help them use what their skills and strengths are to access the things that are important to them. I think the same thing applies to books.”
In addition to conventional author events, Burt said she’s interested in hosting themed events such as a “speed dating” experiment.
“It’s not necessarily for finding a romantic partner but for finding other people who love books,” she said. “Maybe you would find your future book club at a speed dating event. There’s just all different kinds of fun things you get to do when you have space to do it.”
Burt said the store’s name is meant to be suggestive of literary spaces.
“I wanted the word ‘whispering’ in it because that’s kind of what happens when you go to a bookstore or library,” she said. “These are usually quiet places where the books call to you. They call to you from the shelf.”
Open since April at 882 Massachusetts Ave., Tomorrow Bookstore arrived at the beginning of the current surge of independent shops.
Co-owners Jake Budler and Julia Breakey said they’re not surprised to see other stores on deck.
“If we wanted it this badly, we knew other people would,” Breakey said. “We expected not to be the only ones for long.”
Tomorrow is rooting for all the stores to succeed, she said.
“Everyone has their own voice, and I feel like we’re not stepping in each other’s way,” said Breakey, who’s established international books as a defining trait of Tomorrow.
Budler and Breakey, who are married, grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. Breakey said Indianapolis book lovers showed their appreciation for the shop by lining up outside on opening day.
“I couldn’t go outside to look at it,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to start crying immediately.’”
Breakey previously worked as a video content editor at advertising agency Young & Laramore. Budler, a Wabash College alum, was born in Chicago before growing up in South Africa. He now serves as director of entrepreneur experience for scale-up accelerator Endeavor.
Tomorrow recently announced four book clubs that will meet on rotating Wednesday nights at the 900-square-foot store. The topics: books from the African diaspora, fantasy romance, nonfiction and international authors.
“I know there’s a lot of private book clubs in the city, but it’s hard if you’re not already good friends with these people,” Breakey said. “To have a space where you can just show up and the only thing expected of you is to have read a book is going to be really fun.”
Live music is another attraction at Tomorrow, where a Connecticut duo known as Pocket Vinyl will perform on Oct. 15. Eric Stevenson will play keyboards while Elizabeth Jancewicz executes a live painting during an event to promote a Pocket Vinyl graphic novel.
“It’s taking a moment for art and for art’s sake,” Breakey said of the special event. “It’s important to your well-being as a human. … It isn’t about anything but being in a space filled with art to consume some art.”•