YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Leana Hillard sold books at the Four Seasons Flea Market for several months before deciding to take the leap and open Leana’s Books & More in Shenango Valley Mall in 2012.
Since then, Leana’s has added stores at the Grove City Premium Outlets in Mercer County, Pa., and in Austintown. It also launched a sister retail outlet, Bargain Book Stuff, which has a separate storefront at Grove City, as well as space inside the Austintown store.
“If there’s something that you have your heart set on, at least try it. If you fail, at least you tried, right?” Hillard asks.
Hillard’s stores, which she owns with her husband, Vince, are among the regional book retailers in the Mahoning and Shenango Valley region that have defied warnings about the fate of independent bookstores. Bricks-and-mortar chains and online retailers such as Amazon were going to wipe them out first, according to dire forecasts. Then, e-books and e-readers were going to spell the end of the physical print format itself.
That’s not the case. Some booksellers did not survive the changes in the marketplace or failed to emerge from the pandemic. But following a dip in overall numbers in 2021, the online data firm Statista reports the number of independent bookstores in the United States rebounded to 2,599 this year, just above the 2,524 reported in 2019.
Hillard says many of her customers like holding physical books in their hands, especially after spending all day on a computer or looking at their smartphones.
“It relaxes them,” she says, a sentiment she shares.
Lisa Didiano took over the Paperback Shack in Niles from its previous owner in 2015. “A bookstore is a community,” she says.
The bookstore, which at one point had four locations, sells previously owned books as well as book-related gift items.
Didiano decided to purchase the store upon learning from her father that the owner planned to either sell or close it. After reviewing the financial results of the store over the previous five years, she decided to move forward with the purchase. During the following three months, the lawyers and here bank worked on completing the deal and she trained with the existing employees.
Dani Johnson, who opened The Wandering Soul: Books, Gifts & Furniture about a year ago in downtown Sharon, Pa., says she falls asleep every night reading a book and knows there are many other people like her.
“Books have been everything since I could put words together. I get lost in books every day of my life,” Johnson says. “I’ve seen firsthand people get pleasure from walking in and picking up a book.”
The Wandering Soul, which Johnson opened last year with the assistance of a $20,000 American Rescue Plan grant from the city, sells new and used books, as well as furniture pieces made by about 20 local artists. Many of her customers walk in off the street without realizing what she offers and are pleasantly surprised to find books for sale.
Another new bookstore, Bob’s Bookstore, opened in Salem in July 2022. According to proprietor Bob Greier, the city hadn’t had a bookstore in about 20 years. His store sells a mix of new and “gently used” books, which account for about 60% of total sales, as well as hand-crafted jewelry and gonks – gnomelike figures that have largely hidden faces.
Books by Stephen King sell well, as do true crime books, Greier says.
“We’ve created a whole section on true crime. I have a chalk outline of a dead body on the floor. And we actually started a podcast, the True Crime Podcast, that we do out of our store that has brought us listenership, which has brought us readers,” he says.
Other authors popular with Greier’s customers include Colleen Hoover, Sarah Moss and Emily Henry.
“We had to find our niche,” he says.
Another store dealing exclusively in secondhand books, Once Upon a Bookstore in Vienna Township, opened over the summer. Julie Hagood, a semi-retired insurance agent, opened the store with her daughter, Alex Hagood-Derthick. She says she instilled reading into her daughter’s life from a young age.
Hagood says she sometimes hears from people who question why she would open a bookstore when no one reads anymore, a position she disputes.
“There’s a lot of people who read. There’s a lot of people who like paper books,” she says.
Leana Hillard says she was surprised to find how much customers ages 14 to 25 like to read.
Each community attracts a different audience, she says. Grove City gets a mix of people, but definitely more women than men, while Hermitage attracts more adults. Austintown now serves as the primary location for all the stores and distributes to the other outlets from there.
Despite being located in the nearly vacant Shenango Valley Mall, the first Leana’s typically has the most sales of the three locations, with about 40% of total sales, although that fluctuates with the time of year, she says. Local history books are the bestsellers in the three Leana’s stores.
Most of Once Upon a Bookstore’s customers are between the ages of 30 and 60, Hagood says. They’re mostly interested in science fiction, horror, suspense and mystery titles. All of her books are half off the listed price. She sources them from church sales, garage sales and donations.
Like Once Upon a Bookstore, the customer base at Wandering Soul veers toward fantasy, suspense and thrillers. Johnson says her personal tastes are “all over the place.” She enjoys horror authors like Stephen King and Anne Rice but also writers like Jodi Picoult, Wendy Webb and Alice Hoffman.
“Fantasy really takes you into another world and allows you to live through the characters,” Johnson says. “If you’re lucky, there’s a lot of world building. So there’s a lot of places to go in those books.”
Hagood’s own tastes tend toward romance novels but operating the bookstore has broadened her horizons. “Just from talking to people, I’ve learned about a lot of different authors in different genres that I would never think about reading. And I’ve started to pick up those books,” she says.
Johnson says she’ll order items for customers if she doesn’t have them in stock but tries to be different. “I want things to be accessible to people, but I don’t want to have what’s expected,” she says. Johnson also hosts author events and quarterly book swaps.
Leana’s also will special order items, Hillard says. That can include some obscure books that aren’t easily otherwise sourced.
“We can look for whatever you want. We will dig deep,” she says. “If we can’t get it and we can find where you can, we’ll let you know.”
Remaining in the book retailing business hasn’t been without its challenges. When Didiano took over Paperback Shack, which specialized in fiction, she decided to bring in nonfiction and other kinds of books the store didn’t offer – and found out for herself what doesn’t sell in the Warren-Niles area.
“The [previous owner] had been in business since 1978. He obviously knew something more than I did,” she says. “He knew his market and you have to.”
Didiano also sold new books for a time. There is “not a huge markup” on them and customers wanted her to charge less than the price set by publishers.
Greier admits he got his demographics “completely wrong” when he opened Bob’s Bookstore. His research led him to believe that his customers would be “anywhere from 40 years old to dead.” He stocked accordingly, with more than 200 James Patterson books, as well as novels by Sue Grafton and Mary Higgins Clark, who have been writing for decades, biographies and “a tremendous history section.”
He discovered that his customers were women between the ages of 20 and 35 who read “very specific genres,” including romance, fantasy romance and sometimes science fiction. They’re not particularly interested in books published 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
“Young ladies don’t want to read Grandma’s book, or Grandpa’s book; they want their book,” he says.
Business hasn’t been as robust as anticipated at the Austintown Leana’s but the store has started partnering with the Austintown schools on book fairs.
“It’s good cash flow,” Hillard says. The book sales don’t generate “a whole lot of profit” because of the discounts, but the events expose the store to potential customers. The stores also are promoted though social media, including a TikTok page, and host book signings by authors.
Hillard says she would like to add a coffee shop. Another objective is finding a free-standing space for the Austintown store so they could add a drive-thru lane to sell both coffee and books.
Johnson echoes the sense of community many customers feel in bookstores.
“The one feedback that I get on a regular basis is that people feel at home here. People are very comfortable and at ease, that the energy here is really good,” Johnson says. “It just feels like a big family gathering in here whenever we have an event.”
Pictured at top: Dani Johnson owns The Wandering Soul in Sharon, Pa.