Fortunately for lovers of books and bookstores, the dominance of Amazon and the surge in e-commerce hasn’t meant the end of the independent bookstore. Online shopping may be easy from the comfort of the couch, but it can’t substitute for the experience of browsing a shop full of books and the small joy of discovering an unexpected find to take home and spend some time with.
One of the newest places for that is a small store on a side street in the eclectic neighborhood of Northside. Downbound Books opened in October 2019 on Apple Street, a block off of the neighborhood’s main drag, Hamilton Avenue. It’s the project of Greg Kornbluh, book lover and native Cincinnatian, who realized his dream of opening his own bookstore just five months before the pandemic shut down all kinds of businesses and turned shopping in person into a risky activity.
Downbound is a small, highly curated store with a mix of topical, off-the-beaten-path fiction and nonfiction, as well as children’s books and puzzles. There’s even a nod to Crazy Ladies Bookstore, once a Northside community hub and epicenter of feminist and gay literature that closed 20 years ago.
It’s part of a happy trend of independents holding their own these days in the face of the giants of e-commerce, the Amazons and Barnes & Nobles of the world. Sales at independent bookstores climbed in 2021, as the number of books sold through the end of November that year increased by 10% over 2020, and by 20% over the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to NPD BookScan.
Downbound found a home Cincinnati almost by luck. Kornbluh had originally planned on opening his store in Boston, where he had lived for about 15 years while working for Harvard University Press. He learned about the ecosystem of the book publishing and selling business while there, working with sales representatives and bookstores, as well as on publicity and marketing events. He started looking around in the neighborhood he lived in, Jamaica Plain, for a space to open his own store. He passed up one space that seemed promising but too small, then watched as someone else opened a bookstore there.
That ended the search for a time. “The idea for a bookstore that I had was always something that would be very community centered and really part of a place, so I wasn't going to look around in Boston for other parts of town that needed a bookstore,” he says.
He eventually left Harvard University Press and, uncertain about what was next, moved back home to Cincinnati to figure it out. He was driving around Northside, where he had once lived for a few years, when he spotted someone on a lift painting the outside of the old Park Café building at the corner of Apple and Knowlton. The building’s owner, Dave Cunningham, who also owns one of Northside’s favorite bars, The Comet, was freshening up the exterior of the vacant building with a coat of paint in preparation for finding a tenant.
Greg had found his bookstore location, and even better, the apartment upstairs was available, so he could live and work at the same address.
Kornbluh, who had worked as a carpenter and had built furniture, built the shelving for the store along with his father, a retired architect. “I thought it would be fun to build it out myself,” he said. “I thought it would be cheaper than buying and I also knew that it would be the best use of the space.”
With space at a premium, the selection of books is painstakingly selected by Kornbluh and his business partner, Sarah Fischer. The two go way back, having attended Sands Montessori together, as well as Walnut Hills High School.
Their selections are distinctly progressive and befits what is perhaps Cincinnati’s most LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood. Its front window display is topical, with the selection rotating largely based on current events. After the George Floyd killing at police hands in 2020, the display featured books such as Mariame Kaba’s and Andrea Ritchie’s “No More Police.” After the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion, it was books such as Robin Marty’s “Handbook for a Post-Roe America.”
“The stores that I always liked the best are stores that have a point of view, and stores that are not best-seller driven,” Kornbluh says. “There's always something to surprise you, something you weren't expecting.
That was definitely the kind of feel that I wanted.”
He and Fischer continually monitor publishers they like, read reviews, keep an eye on what other stores are stocking, and scan social media feeds. “It’s a mix of bringing in things that we're confident we can sell and some things that are more of a risk, but that we think are worth having,” he says. “People find stuff here that they weren't aware of, which is what the magic of actually being in a physical bookstore is about.”
There’s also books and puzzles for children. “Within a week of being open, we had so many families coming in and kids from 6 years old to 18 years old, so we quickly adjusted and made some space,” Kornbluh says. Puzzles in particular were popular during the early days of the pandemic, as families were shut in with nowhere to go.
COVID-19 emerged just a few months after the opening. The store was able to stay open and had just selected a new online ordering system with a web-based store
that made buying online simple to do. With people shut in, online orders were coming in and Kornbluh delivered them himself throughout the neighborhood.
“There were days when I would do 20 deliveries in the neighborhood,” he says. “I could park my car and walk a block and do four or five deliveries.”
That type of service, as well as curbside pickup it offered, accelerated the awareness of the store, and helped establish it into the fabric of the neighborhood, as did collaborations with other Northside businesses, such as Happy Chicks Bakery, Shake It Records, and The Comet.
With the people shopping in person more freely again, the small bookstore vibe is back, creating that neighborhood destination that Kornbluh was after. “It's just more fun to have people in the store and to see them discovering books or helping them discover books,” he says.