Twenty-five years ago, Meg Ryan’s indie bookshop fell to Tom Hanks’ soulless box store in the Nora Ephron film, You’ve Got Mail. Not long after, brick-and-mortar giants faced the threat of new looming monsters: online shopping and e-publishing. For a time, bookshops both big and small began disappearing, but a refreshing twist to this recurring consumer tale has emerged. Indie bookshops, full of their charming quirks, bookstore cats (or in our area’s case, bunnies), and much-loved story times, are back on the rise.
According to Publisher’s Weekly, American Booksellers Association has seen a spike in membership and member locations since 2021, and it’s estimated that over 300 new bookstores have opened doors across the country in the last several years. This trend holds true in towns up and down Westchester, with one of the newest kids on the block, Armonk’s Make Believe Books, launching just this April.
“More [independent bookstores] have opened than closed by an order of magnitude,” said Laura June Topolshy, owner of the new Make Believe Books. “And in the last five years, they have exploded.”
These four local indies have a big presence in their communities, and it’s not hard to see why.
29 King St, Chappaqua, NY
For seven years running, the booksellers at Scattered Books have taken diligent care in recommending titles to their readers. “We keep lists in our register of all the books their kids have read, and maybe what they’re ready for next,” owner Laura Schaefer said. “We know them.” Along with this personalized shopping experience, the free-range bookshop bunnies, Acorn, Meatball, and Moo, are a big draw for returning customers, including their more famous clientele. The Clintons are frequent shoppers — “they’re grandkids love the bunnies” – and support the store as customers and by signing stock. Schaefer says she doesn’t always recognize the other A-listers that drop in, though. “That’s really the best part about a bookstore,” she said. “Books just don’t care if you’re famous or not. They’re there for anyone – it’s like the great equalizer.”
What’s in Stock: Adult fiction and non-fiction, with displays for seasonal reads and best-sellers, and a wide assortment of children’s books.
Store Events: The shop hosts author events and has a dedicated parties and special events room. They love the challenge of adapting a party to a theme, from common kids fare to requests as random as “polka-dot-rooster” décor.
What Else Will You Find?: Uniquely designed gift baskets and ala cart items like journals, mugs, and candles (bonus: gift wrapping is available!). You’ll also find local pop ups, merch designed by kids, bookshop bunny cards, and a permanent Refillery station. And of course, Scattered Slime, kits in the store that are a favorite among younger shoppers, who eagerly await to see which new slime theme will drop next on TikTok.
Make Believe Books
15 Maple Ave, Armonk, NY
Though Make Believe Books is just a few months old, years of industry experience helped bring it to life. Owner Laura June Topolsky worked in publishing prior to opening the shop, as do her three family member co-owners. This insider knowledge helped them see the writing on the wall. “More [independent bookstores] have opened than closed by an order of magnitude,” Topolsky said, “and in the last five years, they have exploded.”
Longing for a bookshop close to home, she grappled with the idea of opening one herself. She and her partners began looking at spaces before the pandemic and paused when everything shut down. By a stroke of luck, the shop’s space on Maple became available when their search began again in earnest. “From the moment we opened, we felt, ‘Okay, so everyone else around wanted the same thing we wanted,’” she said. “Everyone’s really excited – everyone’s been so happy there’s a book store here.”
What’s in Stock: The shop carries a little of everything in adult fiction and non-fiction, as well as a well-stocked children’s section. “I’m a book person, and so I spent the three months leading up to opening choosing every single book by hand,” Topolsky noted.
Store Events: The shop has Saturday story time, and plans to host author events in the near future, both in-store and around the community.
What Else Will You Find?: Unique items lovingly curated by the owners, including handmade chocolates, Japanese and French stationery and pencils, tarot decks, cards, and an assortment of stuffies and gifts for kids. There’s also a cozy front porch for you to sit and read your new book.
Hudson Valley Books for Humanity
67 Central Ave, Ossining, NY
Another pandemic baby is Books for Humanity, located in Ossining’s historic Olive Opera House building. The shop’s spark came to founder Amy Hall while she was sorting donations. “I was cleaning out my books at home and realized I didn’t know where to take them,” she said. “And I didn’t want to just toss them out.” Hall specializes in sustainability and human rights as an executive at Eileen Fisher. “It came from those values, of wanting to find a new life for these old books that still had a lot of years left in them.”
Hudson Valley Books for Humanity launched first as a popup in November 2021, with the intention of creating a place to come together for the many cross sections of Ossining. “The human rights side of me wanted to create a space that really, truly welcomed everybody. Where people could come in and see themselves in the books, and also be able to afford a book.” The community has indeed embraced the store, crowning it Best of Westchester’s 2023 Best New Store.
What’s in Stock: 85% of shelf space is dedicated to used, or “pre-loved,” books that are priced affordably and span all genres (except text and reference), with a particularly strong choice of fiction, poetry, memoir, and local interest. There’s a vintage books section and a couple shelves dedicated to foreign language books. New books focused in social justice, environmentalism, and diverse voices are also available.
Store Events: Truly a place to gather, the store’s bustling calendar includes community-focused events that range from author readings and workshops to yoga. Open mic and improv nights occur monthly, and the store has even experimented with hosting small theatrical productions.
What Else Will You Find?: Cozy chairs to hang out in, and hot water with tea bags available to steep (just bring your own reusable mug). Along with shopping for books, there’s a permanent section to get waste-free Refillery soaps. Shoppers will also find local artisan products like jewelry, pottery, and frameable art that come from sustainable materials.
The Village Bookstore
10 Washington Ave, Pleasantville, NY
The Village Bookstore has been a mainstay in the community since the ‘70s. Current owner Jennifer Kohn took the reins in 2018 when she decided to switch up her career, though she soon faced the challenge of operating a store during a global pandemic. Luckily, she had launched the shop’s first website in late 2019, which had real-time inventory and a full database of their catalog.
“Without having that, it would have been a challenge, because during the pandemic, 50% of our sales came from the website,” she said. “It was a huge shift.” She said that local shops were really stepping in to provide books to readers stuck at home as libraries closed and online sellers like Amazon switched to prioritizing essential items. “Getting books was actually difficult,” she recalled about those early days of 2020. Along with curbside pickup, the shop took an extra step to bring people something to read. “Every night after we closed the story, my husband and I drove around Westchester to deliver books.”
Customers haven’t forgotten how The Village Bookstore stepped in as an essential business to provide some respite during those long periods of isolation. The store won the title of Best Bookstore in Best of Westchester 2023, a true honor in a county full of amazing bookshops.
What’s in Stock: Adult fiction and non-fiction spanning genres like cooking, travel, history, sports, and religion. Children’s books range from board books through YA. You’ll also find a selection of graphic novels and manga.
Store Events: The shop hosts a young adult galley club and recently held its first middle school party, where kids had the run of the store afterhours to chat books and munch on pizza. You’ll often find The Village Bookstore out supporting partners like Hudson Valley Writers Center, local libraries, and the Jacob Burns Film Center.
What Else Will You Find?: Vibrant displays of greeting cards, journals, tarot cards, literary candles, and other bookish gift items – plus free gift wrapping.