Julius A. Karash on Business and the Arts: Indie bookstore revival nurtures readers, diversity, connectivity in ‘Third Spaces’

Monarch Books & Gifts owner Christin Young (left), and Eve Ward, the store’s manager. (photo by Jim Barcus)

After 13 years as a stay-at-home mom, Christin Young was ready to take on a new challenge.

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and I knew I wanted to own my own business,” Young said. “And I love books.”

Convinced that an independent bookstore would enrich her community, Young launched Monarch Books & Gifts in Overland Park. Now in its fifth year, Monarch caters to growing numbers of folks who yearn to interact with books and other readers in an actual, physical, nurturing place.

“Some people want to read on Kindle and order online, but there are a lot of people that want the physical book, and they still want to go to a store,” Young said.

Young put a lot of thought into making Monarch a welcoming environment. Green walls are designed to evoke a sense of calm. With chairs spread throughout the store, customers can sit alone in a little nook or share space with fellow readers and coffee drinkers.

“Customers say they feel like they are getting a hug when they walk in,” Young said. “It smells good and it feels good. People know they’re in a safe place that’s comfortable.”

And it seems like the good vibes are making a healthy impact on Monarch’s revenues. “We’re hearing that a lot of retail is down, but our first-quarter sales were up 25 percent from last year,” Young said.


The appearance of Monarch and other indie bookstores in the Kansas City area reflects a nationwide comeback of the genre, which suffered for years at the hands of online and big-box competitors.

According to the American Booksellers Association, a not-for-profit trade organization that advocates for independent bookstores, the numbers of independent bookstores rose from 1,700 members with stores in 2,100 locations in 2021 to 2,433 members with stores in 2,844 locations in 2023.

This trend was examined by Harvard Business School Professor Ryan L. Raffaelli in a 2020 working paper entitled “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores.”

Raffaelli identified “3C’s” that contributed to the resurgence:

  • Community: Independent bookstore owners promote the idea of consumers supporting their local communities by shopping at neighborhood businesses. They won customers back from Amazon and big-box players by stressing a strong connection to local community values.
  • Curation: Independent booksellers focused on curating inventory that allowed them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience. Rather than recommending only bestsellers, they developed personal relationships with customers by helping them discover up-and-coming authors and unexpected titles.
  • Convening: Independent booksellers promote their stores as intellectual centers for convening customers with like-minded interests by offering lectures, book signings, game nights, children’s story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties. Some bookstores routinely host over 500 events a year.

“I curate books of all genres,” Young said. “The readers appreciate the diversity of what we have.”

Young said she initially did not offer books aimed at middle school kids and young adults because she didn’t think there would be much demand. But soon she was pleasantly surprised to learn that she had been wrong. Older siblings of young children who were brought to the store asked for books that interested them, and other young people discovered Monarch on their own.

“Now we have a very well-curated middle school and YA section,” she said.

Cori Smith, owner, BLK + BRWN in Midtown (www.facebook.com/kansascity)


Founded in 2021, the independent BLK + BRWN in Midtown Kansas City specializes in books by Black, Brown and Indigenous authors.

“I’ve always wanted to do something that would serve the community and help people,” said Cori Smith, BLK + BRWN’s founder. “I wanted to create a safe space where people will feel like this is a home away from home.”

Smith said independent bookstores have played a historic role in a variety of movements, by serving as “incubation spaces where political conversation happens at the grassroots level. In a bookstore you can get a pulse of trends that are impacting a community.”

Big-box bookstores typically do not offer the variety of books available at an independent store, Smith said. For example, big-box stores lean toward nonfiction in their offerings that deal with Black and Brown people, she said.

“That usually tends to be a lot of slavery narratives or memoirs. We are way more than our trauma in our past.”

The indie trend spread to Raytown when Angie Land opened Trailhead Books in April of this year.

Angie Land, owner of Trailhead Books in Raytown (photo by Weston and Phoebe Land)

“I am a social worker by training,” Land said. “I was needing to make a change, and having a bookstore to support our community is something I’ve thought about for a long time. I’m a reader and a writer and someone who loves the whole experience of what books and reading can do for us.”

Trailhead’s book selection offers a little of everything, Land said. “We want to have a range so that whoever walks in would be able to find something that’s kind of up their alley.”

Trailhead also sells games and jigsaw puzzles. Customers can play games set up in the store or bring their own games to play. Or they can fit a puzzle piece or two into an ongoing tabletop puzzle project.
Land said the variety of things to do and ways to connect create what’s known as a “third space.”

“There aren’t as many of those as there used to be,” she said. “I think people are really craving places where they can find connection in a face-to-face way. So much of our lives are online, and I think there’s something lacking in that. Trailhead can serve as a physical space to exchange ideas and laugh with people and explore a great story.”

Or as Smith put it, “People want experiences. I think a lot of that is a byproduct of the pandemic. A lot of people felt isolated or were looking for ways to connect with other people. Book spaces became kind of a thing.”

Poets Hannah Risinger and Brandan Griffin operate a small online store called New Material Books. (photo by Hannah Risinger)

Hannah Risinger and Brandan Griffin, two poets who moved from New York City to Kansas City in 2022, launched a small online store called New Material Books in February 2024. They held their first pop-up event in May at the Casual Animal Brewing Co., and they plan to open a Kansas City storefront someday.

“I’m from California, close to L.A., and I grew up in an environment where I went to bookstores a lot,” Risinger said. “I loved getting lost in a really unique book. Not necessarily the New York Times bestseller, but a book that really challenged me. We want to bring those kinds of books to an already quirky and interesting scene in Kansas City.”

And while more indie bookstores crop up, Young said there’s plenty of room.

“The independent bookstore community has good camaraderie,” Young said. “The ones that are popping up are in areas that aren’t close to me. Overland Park is big, Johnson County is big and spread out. People love independent bookstores, and the people that love to support independent bookstores will support all of us.”

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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