When Nina Barrett opened a new branch of her independent bookstore Bookends & Beginnings on the main commercial street of downtown Evanston this weekend, she defied the trend of small-business collapse in the time of COVID. She also reversed the narrative arc of the popular 90s rom-com—You’ve Got Mail—in which an aggressive new chain bookstore drove a beloved indie store out of business.
The new branch expands her 6-year-old bookstore with an additional 900 square feet of retail space. The new storefront also gains her prominent visibility on one of Evanston’sprime downtown shopping streets—just half a block away from where a large Barnes & Noble, her former chain-store competitor, vacated its space a few months ago.
Both Barrett’s original store and the nearby Barnes & Noble were forced to shut down for several months in the spring of 2020 during the first COVID lockdown. “I wasn’t sure if we were going to pull through,” said Barrett.
Thanks to a PPP loan, a successful GoFundMe campaign, and robust online ordering by her customers on the store’s website, the store did pull through, and was able to re-open for walk-in business in July. Then the store experienced the best holiday season in its history.
By contrast, the Barnes & Noble store permanently closed its nearby location.
“Our community stepped up to save us,” Barrett said. “We did a lot of messaging to say that if you value the presence of a business in your community, you need to vote for its survival with your spending dollars. And it worked.”
Barrett’s new space at 1716 Sherman will now become Bookends & Beginnings’ gift and stationery boutique, featuring literary-themed gift items, cards and stationery, and a selection of locally-focused books.
“There’s a cynical belief out there that indie bookstores are doomed because they don’t—and can’t—offer the same kinds of discounts as their monster-sized competitors,” Barrett said. “But luckily there are increasing numbers of consumers who realize that the value they get by paying full cover price for a book includes a lot of things they can’t get from an impersonal chain store or from Amazon.”
In its six years of operation, Bookends & Beginnings has become a neighborhood hub. The store’s broad and eclectic selection, along with its author events (now conducted virtually), and dedicated staff, have earned it comparisons to industry legends such as City Lights and Powell’s.
The obvious reverse parallel to You’ve Got Mail is not lost on Barrett, whose original store is literally around the corner from the former B&N.
“We’re still doing what the fictional owner of The Shop Around the Corner was doing so beautifully in that movie 22 years ago,” Barrett said. “Reading stories to kids. Launching local authors’ books. Handing our customers books we know they’ll love, because we know both the books and the customers.”