They've battled the big guys, the Internet, the downward spiral of the economy. Now, in the tradition of all great drama, independent suburban bookstores are writing a whole new chapter on survival.
Stores like the decades-old Anderson's in Naperville, Town House Books in St. Charles and Crocodile Pie in Libertyville faced challenges even before the recession. But in these tough times, they're getting by - and their story isn't as bleak as other retailers.
The chains that thinned the ranks of independent bookstores are now hurting, leaving room for booksellers who have established roots in the suburbs, nurtured faithful customers and fostered strong relationships with New York publishers that make it a point to have authors stop by for events.
"This is still a great escape with a great book," said Anderson's co-owner Becky Anderson Wilkins. "You walk into the store and find your perfect book and have a unique experience. You can't get that anywhere else."
American Booksellers Association Chief Operating Officer Oren Teicher recently touched on how the economy is affecting independents. "In the midst of a steep economic downturn," he said, "independent businesses have shown great resilience."
That resilience has a lot to do with roots.
"This has been a terrible time for retailers in general, including bookstores," said Avin Mark Domnitz, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association in Tarrytown, N.Y. "But the key for independent booksellers is to stay very tightly tied to their local communities, including the shop local campaigns. It's very important for them to keep those ties."
The ranks of these so-called "indies" nationwide have been sliding into the shadow of big-box discounters, such as Wal-Mart and Target, as well as growing e-book publishers or Internet-based stores, like Amazon.com.
About 5,400 bricks-and-mortar independent bookstores were around in the 1990s, when the Barnes & Noble and Borders boom hit. Today, about 1,800 remain. The loss of more indies is expected, just as the rough economy chips away at many industries, said Jim Dana, executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, a group made up of 450 independent bookstores, authors, publishers and marketers.
"We've seen a decrease in our numbers and it's a result of the economy," said Dana.
Still, the chains are no longer the threat they once were. A survey of independent bookstores and other retailers by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance showed that independent businesses nationwide saw the last holiday season sales decline about 5 percent, compared to the same period in 2007. However, the chains saw sharper declines: Barnes & Noble was down 7.7 percent and Borders was down 14 percent.
"Independent retailers in communities with active shop local campaigns have outperformed retailers in cities and towns without such campaigns," Teicher said.
Anderson's is a good example. The bookstore started in Naperville in 1964, and it has moved and expanded downtown over the years. It recently completed another expansion of its flagship store, while a second location in Downers Grove holds its own since 1984. A store in Elmhurst closed in 2003 after about 10 years because of a sluggish market.
During this time, downtown Naperville also expanded, adding sophisticated stores that drew more shoppers into Anderson's. The store's book club membership has grown to 7,500, and its e-mail list now has about 12,000.
Anderson's extends its community ties by co-hosting events with local schools and produces its own local access cable show featuring interviews with visiting authors. The stores also draw well-known authors - from J.K. Rowling to Julie Andrews and Alan Alda.
Last October, customers packed the Naperville store to meet Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was touting one of his historical books.
"I've been coming here for about two years and just like it," said Kevin Clarke of Plainfield. "It's not like the big conglomerate stores and it's more relaxing and comfortable. They're very helpful and they have really good speakers."
"This is an independent-owned store and in Naperville with a good selection and good customer services," said Sandy Kehl of Naperville. "If something ever happened to this store, it would be terrible. I would hate to see a family business go out of business."
Big-name authors who are willing to sign books, talk with customers or have dinner with them at special events always draw a book-buying crowd. Couple that with downtown business campaign events, and the crowds could swell, like the 70,000 who gathered in Naperville for events surrounding the debut of the last Harry Potter book, which spiked sales for Anderson's and other stores.
Then there are the extras, such as free gift wrapping, free personal shopping, membership discounts, clerks who provide individualized attention as well as Web features, e-mail blasts and other connections, booksellers said.
"Sure you can buy a book at the big-box stores," said owner Wilkins, "but it won't be the same experience that we give you."
In St. Charles, Town House Books has had a similar relationship with loyal customers for more than 30 years. Based in a Greek revival building circa 1853, the bookstore has expanded its services over the years and added a cafe in 1996 to attract the leisure reader who also wants to use a laptop, said owner David Hunt.
"We're in a beautiful building and I have my dream job," said Hunt. "And we're very careful on what we buy. We focus heavily on what our customers want."
While Anderson's has a staff of 45 at two stores, including marketing and program professionals, Hunt just has five workers. Still, his small staff has helped to maintain sales and handle about eight author events a year.
"We don't want to lose our momentum and want to keep our customers coming back," Hunt said.
Independent bookseller for children, Crocodile Pie in Libertyville, almost lost its momentum altogether when it faced closure after 19 years. The owner had wanted to spend more time with her family.
That's when Kim Zizic, a dentist, and Amy Moran, owner of an Irish dance studio, became business partners and bought the store last August.
They have two other employees and have continued the traditional music days and storytelling events. They also added space for birthday parties on weekends and introduced a Wish List gift registry.
"Sure it's been a lot of hours and a huge learning curve, after all we're learning how to manage a bookstore, but it's been a lot of fun," Moran said.
Still, the dentist and the dance instructor face long work hours maintaining their original jobs and running the store. Eventually, Moran intends to buy out Zizic.
"We're going to keep our other jobs going because it helps to balance things out," Moran said, "especially with this economy."