Public Service

More than books

Tushar Varma traveled across 35 states, visiting 85 independent bookstores to learn why they’re so vital to the communities they reside in.

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During the summer of 2022, Tushar Varma ’23 recorded hours of video and logged 15,000 miles in his red Prius, which he affectionately calls “Lola.” The UNC-Chapel Hill advertising major spent 78 days driving across the country and back again, all for the love of books and the stores they’re sold in.

The goal? To make a documentary unpacking what makes these spaces unique and special — and how they continue to thrive alongside monoliths like Amazon and other major booksellers.

Varma’s idea came to fruition thanks to a Burch Fellowship, a grant program for students who want to pursue an “intense interest well beyond the scope of an academic course or summer internship.”

The Greatest Bookscapes” is about the irreplaceable value independent bookstores bring to their local communities — something that can’t be replicated by major booksellers.

“I wanted to do an ethnographic investigation into why these spaces are important,” Varma says. “That’s the first thing you learn in an anthropology class, right? You can’t learn culture. You have to understand culture by immersing yourself in that culture.”

Gaining insight with a gap year

When he was 20 years old, Tushar Varma found himself running an independent bookstore in Hilo, Hawaii — just five days after he began working there.

At the time, in 2021, he was taking a gap year between his sophomore and junior year as part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Bridge Year Fellowship, a program overseen by the Campus Y and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. He had spent his first six weeks in Hawaii working on a farm, but soon realized he wasn’t cut out for a life of hard labor.

So he moved to Hilo and began volunteering for a local bookstore. Just a few days into his new job, the owner had a family emergency and asked Varma if he would watch the store while she was away.

“I’d never worked in a bookstore before,” he says with a laugh. “But she trusted me. And that was something that was pretty unique about that community. They were very kind and very trusting.”

Varma spent the next month figuring out how to run a business, coordinating with the store’s other volunteers to do so. When he told the owner he needed to take a few days off to find a different place to live, she suggested he move into the bookstore. So he did.

“I feel like everyone wants to have that work in a bookstore moment in their life,” he says. “It was pretty magical.”

During that time, Varma began to understand the role community plays in these spaces. The bookstore felt like a reflection of Hilo and its values — a thought Varma couldn’t shake from his head after returning to Chapel Hill for his junior year in the fall of 2021. Were all independent bookstores like that?

He was going to find out.

Recording resilience

“Bookstores offer so much more than books,” Varma says. “[They have] writers’ programs, programs for kids, work with mutual aid networks in their communities — do a lot of incredible things that corporate booksellers don’t do.”

For example, Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, South Carolina, is best known for a literary festival called Y’allFest, which that draws hundreds of authors and thousands of readers to The Holy City each fall. An in-store coffeeshop and bakery draws new and old customers alike to Off the Beaten Path in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. In New Orleans, Faulkner House Books lures readers with its historic significance as the former residence of William Faulkner — author of “The Sound and the Fury” and “As I Lay Dying.” Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, cofounded a radio show melding music and literature.

Much of Varma’s documentary details the struggles these businesses dealt with during the pandemic. Forced to go online, they had to invent new ways to keep customers beyond the allure of the cozy spaces and programming they usually offer.

Foggy Pine Books in Boone, North Carolina, provided free books to Watauga County residents through a literacy program called Free Books for Boone. In Decatur, Georgia, Little Shop of Stories offered free home delivery, curbside pickup, and shipping for online and phone orders. Ann Patchett, an American author and the owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, started a YouTube series called “Laydown Diaries” to discuss the books she and her staff were reading, which upped online sales.

Creating safe spaces

Just like books offer an escape, so do bookstores, according to Varma. Some even cater to specific audiences. A few of the stores he visited call themselves “feminist bookstores,” while others provide safe spaces for children after school. A handful draw foodies, coffee connoisseurs and even beer and wine enthusiasts via in-store cafes and coffeeshops.

No matter their specialty, though, all the bookstores Varma visited shared that same sense of community he first found in Hilo.

“They start to know your name after a while,” he says. “They know what’s going on in your life, and they personally care. That touch of warmth is unique to indie bookstores.”

Varma experienced this firsthand as a stranger in most of these places. Every person he interviewed welcomed him with open arms and excitement for the project.

“I think that’s the magic of independent bookstores: Everyone is welcome.”

Read more stories on Carolina researchers atEndeavors.UNC.edu