While e-books, Amazon and a lingering pandemic continue to jeopardize the viability of independent bookstores across the country, Silver City’s book culture not only remains intact, it is thriving.
This tiny mountain city is home to four full-time booksellers — Avalon, O’Keefe’s, Silver City Book Shop and the SouthWest Adolescent Group stand-alone bookstore that opened on Bullard this month. If you count all book-related establishments in town, including charity shops that offer substantial collections of used books at thrift store prices, the bookstore at Western New Mexico University and two libraries — one public and one at the university — the number is an astounding eight.
Why astounding? In 2020, an apartmentguide.com survey calculated a per-capita ratio for book-related establishments, including libraries, for cities with populations of more than 50,000. (Research for this report found no defining statistics for towns of less than 50,000, much less 10,000.) Ratios for the top 10 cities ranged from 22 to 51. Four out of the top five — Cambridge, Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Chapel Hill, 1, 2, 4 and 5, respectively — are home to at least one large university, while Pensacola, Fla., also in the top five, is home to a large military base.
The closest comparison to Silver City’s four bookstores for 9,000 people was No. 7, Marietta, Ga., whose population of 60,000 shared 13 bookstores for a ratio of 21, a rating so high that the author of the report called it “disproportional.” Imagine his or her surprise if told that the books-to-people ratio for a tiny mountain town of 9,000, tucked alongside the Gila National Forest, was 44, which would tie it with Pensacola, No. 3 on the company’s list of “Top Book Lover Cities.”
And that, says the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, is impressive.
“This is remarkable support for independent booksellers for a city the size of Silver City,” said CEO Allison Hill, “especially considering that during the pandemic, we had about one independent bookseller closing every week. Clearly, I need to put it on my travel bucket list.”
In today’s data-heavy society, anyone looking for a place to raise their children, buy a property, open a business or retire can review any number of “livability” surveys that score cities on everything from school quality and weather to recreational opportunities and the culture. The availability of bookstores is an important part of that personality profile, Hill said, because they offer places to gather that are unique to a city.
“We don’t want to live in a city that looks like every other city, with a Starbucks or a Gap on every corner, or a mall anchored by Barnes and Noble like every other city in America,” she said. “Bookstores give a city a personality. This community [of Silver City] is one that I would want to live in.”
Few of the town’s residents would disagree. Not only are there more bookstores here than in a city 20 times its size, the community is saturated in the arts — for sale or for its own sake. Galleries line our streets, art festivals fill our calendars and live music plays somewhere in town just about every night of the week.
Perhaps most impressive is that given a spare moment or two, we make our own art. We stack rock sculptures in our front yards, draw murals on our walls, carve shapes in our shutters, weave colored thread through the chain links of any random stranger’s fence and grow all manner of plants and flowers.
‘We planned it
All of this begs the question: Why so lucky? Why did the town’s built environment develop in harmony, mostly, with its natural beauty and temperate climate? And how did it evolve into a quirky and colorful place defined by music, art and books, instead of returning into a monochromatic landscape of strip malls, a boarded-up downtown and sprawling subdivisions?
Well, first of all, it didn’t happen by chance, says Charmeine Wait, executive director of the Silver City MainStreet Project.
“We planned it that way,” she said.
Silver City has a Downtown Action Plan and an Arts and Cultural Plan that MainStreet and other organizations use as a guide.
“It also grew organically, as artists were attracted by the beauty of this area,” Wait said. “The Silver City Art Association and the Grant County Art Guild have truly helped make Silver City an arts and artist destination.”
MainStreet is a national organization formed in the 1970s to revitalize small towns, as state highways were rerouted away from Main Street to service large commercial developments and their attendant large parking lots. Silver City’s MainStreet chapter, founded in 1984, is the oldest continuously operating program in the state. In 2011, the Silver City organization won the Great American Main Street Award, a national award given to only three MainStreet programs each year. Silver City MainStreet remains the only New Mexico program to win the award.
Wait, a Grant County resident for more than 30 years, was hired as executive director of the Silver City nonprofit in 2017.
“The project is responsible for many of the characteristics that make Silver City an attractive place to live today, including preserving and/or improving building facades, streetscapes, sidewalks and parks downtown,” Wait said, stressing that “it wasn’t something that happened overnight. It was a long haul of incremental changes and protections put forward by people who really care about our downtown.”
And yes, she said, location has played a part as well: “We were actually kind of lucky being isolated, that the population was too small to attract a lot of big-box stores or franchises.”
Wait proposed that the astounding health of the town’s book culture is a natural result of a community committed to protecting and preserving an environment it has come to treasure. That’s why, while approximately one bookstore closed per week nationwide in 2020, all three of Silver City’s bookstores are still in business in 2022, with the new SWAG store opening this month.
SWAG’s confidence in opening yet another bookstore downtown is one factor pointing to a healthy book culture here. The survival of a long-treasured bookshop after losing its lease earlier this year is another.
so much to do
One might ask why the competition for the dollars of so few people for so many books hasn’t put at least one seller out of business — a question SWAG board President Jason Burke says he asked four years ago when he was running the bookstore at It Takes a Village, an organization that formerly provided services to Silver City’s unhoused.
“When Michael [Lacey, owner of the Silver City Book Shop] opened up, I wondered if the town could support another bookstore,” Burke said. “But we all had our niches then, and I think everyone is doing well now.”
He said that although SWAG is a “real” bookstore now, and although it is within blocks of three other booksellers, he believes the noncompeting attitude will prevail.
“We’re still not doing the same thing,” Burke said.
The new store looks forward to reaping the benefits of increased foot traffic and tourist trade downtown. The space at 409 N. Bullard was originally for sale, but the owner, April Redbird, agreed to rent it to the nonprofit at a negotiated and “accommodating” rent, Burke said.
The shop is big, bright and clean, with shelves neatly filled with a remarkably wide selection of books. Two-inch-thick official state environmental reports, lush coffee-table books are for sale, along with books on art, wilderness survival and DIY home repair — all clearly labeled by category.
But the space, as lovely as it is, is not the most exciting thing happening there, according to the staff. The big payoff is the new children’s section. The large room is decorated in bright colors, with a mural planned for the wall and beanbags ordered for seating.
It’s all organized by age, from toddlers to young adults. Movie nights and games for the teenagers and Saturday morning story times for youngsters will make sure Joy Mumford and Barbara Stribling, the two volunteers who have spearheaded the remodel of the section, are kept busy.
Rounding out the special attractions is a quiet, comfortable seating area available for activities, including book club meetings, poetry readings and book signings. Discussions are also underway to open a tea room at the back of the store, Burke said.
Survival of the fittest
When the lease for the Silver City Book Shop was not renewed this year, proprietor Lacey had no sooner secured a lease on a space across the street than the bugle blew and his loyal band of raconteurs, comedians, animal lovers and book lovers disguised as professors , carpenters, teachers and lawyers were performing precision drills down Broadway in preparation for the move. Over the past three weeks, the army of volunteers have been a constant presence at the store, dismantling shelves, packing boxes, cleaning out corners and carting thousands of books and an array of eclectic memorabilia across the street to the new location.
It is doubtful that SWAG’s new store and the Silver City Book Shop will find themselves in much competition. SWAG’s 25,000-book inventory has been placed firmly on sturdy shelves, with crayons sharpened and within reaching distance of little fingers in the new children’s room. Hundreds of CDs and DVDs are displayed in cabinets where labels can be clearly read.
The Silver City Book Shop and its gregarious owner are a whole other species. Lacey is currently curating the collection of 10,000 books that will go into the new space — with another approximately 40,000 volumes stored in containers and storerooms. No opening date has been announced, but it is not likely to be long before Lacey is back gently curating lively discussions among readers, scoffers, peaceniks and warmongers, people who can’t stop talking and people who won’t talk, comics who think they are funny and jokers who are, and raconteurs of various abilities — all as integral to part of the shop as the 3-foot pink flamingo that was a regular fixture in the shop window at the old place.