Who says print is dead? Literary culture alive and well in Cincy bookstores

Across its rich literary history, the Queen City has played host to famous authors, exceptional libraries, literary salons and a spectacular range of independent bookstores that has fortified local readers for more than 200 years.

Cincinnati has more bookstores per capita than San Francisco, and we’re tied with Seattle at seventh among America’s Most Literate Cities, according to a 2014 study by Central Connecticut State University.

But what makes those distinctions truly impressive is that most of our region’s bookstores are independently owned and operated.

“The independent bookstore sector of the book industry has grown every year for the past five years,” says Richard Hunt, owner of Roebling Point Books & Coffee in Covington. “I believe this is due to a combination of many things: readers coming back to print and many who never went away, as well as recognition of the bookstore as a ‘third place’ in people's lives.”

Curated collections and the booksellers who love them

Local bookstores have long excelled at creating unique environments that attract diverse readers from near and far. In addition to books, many local stores offer coffee shops, reader-themed merchandise and community meeting spaces.

But the sellers themselves are often what sets Cincy’s literary scene apart from other cities.

“Our booksellers are tastemakers that offer customer service and product knowledge that can’t be matched,” says Michael Link, publisher relations manager for Joseph-Beth Booksellers, which has operated a store in Rookwood Commons for more than 20 years. “Where we really shine is introducing someone to a book they don’t know. When you can put the right book in the right person’s hand at the right time, it’s amazing.”

Roebling Point takes that notion a step further, relying heavily on bookseller recommendations to curate their inventory.

“What that means for readers is that we've taken the time to review our favorites and expose ourselves in a very public way to say, ‘These are books we've read and enthusiastically vouch for,’” says Hunt. “There are many authors that we pledge to keep every one of their books in stock, not just their best-known works.”

Julie Fay, owner of Over-the-Rhine’s Iris Book Café and Gallery, is similarly committed to providing a neighborhood hub that offers a carefully curated selection.

“We provide that third place to allow neighbors to come together to share coffee, conversations, information and opinions,” she says. “The books provide the background, ambiance and stimulation for some of those lively conversations."

Fay’s former business partner, the late Mike Markiewicz — known and loved by many as the founder of Kaldi's Coffee House & Bookstore — shared Fay’s passion for hand-selected stock.

“We love the beauty of older books as objects, with their careful printing, illustrations, covers, end papers and binding,” Fay says.

Nurturing a literary ecosystem

With so many indie bookstores around town, coupled with the growing popularity of online shopping, one might expect fierce competition among Cincinnati booksellers. But each store occupies a special niche — and they frequently collaborate with each other and with libraries, nonprofits and local colleges to host author events and promote literacy.

“We have a more symbiotic relationship,” says Dave Richardson, book buyer and assistant manager at Blue Marble Books in Fort Thomas. “Our goal isn't to put others out of business or to grab their market. Our focus is on providing the customer with a service they can't get at the big-box stores or from online retailers.”

The annual Books by the Banks festival may be the region’s best-known example of literary collaboration, but events like last year’s separate visits from renowned author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins also required the city’s literary professionals to work together.

“Cincinnati is delivering quality events that customers, publishers and authors want to see,” says Link. “We are able to draw the same crowds as large cities and better crowds than a lot of cities of comparable size. Cincinnati is being recognized as a premiere destination for authors.”

Similarly, local authors are well represented on our bookstores' shelves and are more readily available for in-store appearances.

The Booksellers on Fountain Square has hosted events with local authors such as Phil Nuxhall, Rick Pender, David Pepper and Don Heinrich Tolzmann, and Joseph-Beth also regularly features local talent.

“We are first and foremost a local bookstore,” says Link. “Showcasing debut authors who are local is a huge priority for us.”

Stores like Blue Marble and Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore & Cafe also offer an array of resources for children and their families that include reading clubs, story times, summer programs, young-reader activities and opportunities to meet iconic characters.

“Our programming creates a personal experience with books,” says Richardson. “When kids make that connection, they read. We often work with other indie bookstores and businesses to get books into the hands of kids.”

Used bookstores rally support for rare prints

While the demise of books has long been prophesied, the popularity of the printed word shows no signs of slowing down. Yet, not every book has the staying power to attract publisher investment and remain in circulation. 

“I think one of our most difficult challenges is telling grandparents-to-be that the book they bought for their son or daughter, and want to get for their grandchild, is no longer in print,” Richardson says.

Fortunately, local providers like Iris Book Café specialize in rare, used and out-of-print items. Known for its wide selection of harder-to-find poetry, literature, drama and foreign-language books — which includes the largest collection of Polish books in Cincinnati — the store also hosts regular photography exhibits and other special events.

Duttenhofer’s Books in Clifton Heights also maintains a similar commitment to keeping printed works in circulation for as long as possible.

“We are the home for books on their journey from one owner to the next,” says owner Kim Steinsiek. “We choose to deal with only the best books, books of lasting value in well-made editions, classics in every category and antiquarian books with lovely covers or illustrations or maps, or anything that a buyer might fancy.”

But the feather in Cincinnati’s literary cap — especially when it comes to works of historical significance — might just be Ohio Book Store, the region’s oldest, founded in 1940. Readers can get lost in five floors of new and used works at the store’s downtown location, which offers an exceptional collection of books that highlight Greater Cincinnati history — and they even offer book-repair services, for those not yet ready to turn the page on a particularly beloved print.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.