A Shake Shack restaurant takes up much of the space where the Barnes and Noble in Towson once operated.
A Shake Shack restaurant takes up much of the space where the Barnes and Noble in Towson once operated. Credit: Richard Bader

The Catskills town of Hobart Village in New York has fewer than 400 residents, but at least eight independent bookstores along its main street. Charlottesville, Virginia, population 45,400, is home to at least 10 bookstores. There are at least 10 bookstores as well in Saratoga Springs, New York (pop. 28,600).

There are towns with multiple bookstores in Scotland, South Korea, Switzerland, Norway, and all over the world.

Yet if you exclude campus bookstores or shops that mostly deal in college textbooks, Towson, with a population of more than 50,000 and home to two colleges (Goucher and Towson), has zero.

A Towson Yelp search for “bookstores near me” yields, in its top five, The Ivy Bookshop (Baltimore City), the Bird in Hand Café & Bookstore (Baltimore City), Barnes & Noble (Pikesville), The Book Escape (Baltimore City), and Greedy Reads (Baltimore City). None, in other words, in Towson.

“It’s a little crazy,” says Jay Hilgartner, a former community relations manager at the Towson Barnes & Noble bookstore who worked for the company for a dozen years.

It wasn’t always this way. Not that long ago Towson readers could buy books at Greetings & Readings, or Ukazoo Books, or even at large chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. But Greetings & Readings closed its Towson store before relocating to Hunt Valley, and in 2019 closed that store as well. The former location of Ukazoo Books off Dulaney Valley Road is now a bike shop, and Ukazoo’s Loch Raven Boulevard location closed a couple of years ago. The Borders Bookstore chain went bankrupt more than a decade ago. Barnes & Noble is still around, but the chain closed its Towson store in 2017.

So what happened?

The easy answer is that Amazon happened. Amazon, founded in 1995, recognized the market for online book purchases and captured that space. As Amazon grew, the number of independent booksellers plunged. In 2007, Amazon introduced the Kindle electronic reader, to give readers of online books an Amazon-endorsed device on which to read them. Amazon came to dominate the e-book market. Is it fair to blame Amazon?

“It’s not that simple,” says Leo Gordy, assistant manager of the Barnes & Noble in Bowie. “Each individual company has their own story.”

For the now-out-of-business Borders, says Gordy, who once worked for the company, the end came after it gave away too much business knowledge to Amazon. The Towson branch of Barnes & Noble closed when a leasing issue caused it to vacate its location in the center of Towson. Barnes & Noble has not died, however, and many of its stores continue to operate. After he was brought in to preside over the closing of the Towson Barnes & Noble store, Gordy moved on to manage the Barnes & Noble in Pikesville, Maryland, which was recently featured in an NPR story about how the company has rebounded from “the brink of extinction.”

And nationally at least, independent booksellers have made a remarkable comeback. The American Booksellers Association reported that there were nearly 2,500 bookstores in 2018, after a low of 1,651 in 2009.

“I think what we’ve understood,” Mitchell Kaplan, founder of South Florida-based Books & Books, told Publishers Weekly in 2022, “with all the shocks to the literary system, that it has never been stronger. Books are not going away. People wanting stories is not going away.” 

“Certainly Towson has a lot of the factors that might make it a desirable place for a bookstore,” says Emma Snyder, who owns Baltimore’s Ivy Bookshop and Bird in Hand Café & Books. “It’s dense, well educated. There’s precedent of demand. Is there somebody in Towson who would like to own an indie bookstore? And then do they have the wherewithal, and do they have the inclination? It is a lot of work. There’s just such a constellation of factors and variables.”

It helps, says Pam Price, former co-owner of The Book Shop, in Beverly Farms, Mass., to have a famous author affiliated with your bookstore. The writer John Updike had a house in Beverly Farms, and was a generous regular at The Book Shop. Ernest Hemingway’s legacy in Key West, Florida, has been a boon to that town’s many bookstores. It hasn’t hurt bookstores in Oxford, Mississippi, that the town is known for being the home of William Faulkner. Yet famous author or no famous author, Price, whose husband grew up in Towson, is a staunch advocate of bookstores as places to buy books, and is dismayed by the dearth of Towson bookshops. “There’s something about seeing books in person,” she says.

So, back to the question posed at the outset: Why no bookstores in Towson? The best answer might be that at present, no potential bookshop owner feels that Towson has the combination of community demographics and affordable space to make a bookstore viable. Or, following Snyder’s line of thinking, no potential owner has the inclination to start one. It could be that the answer is simply timing — there have been bookstores in the past, and there will be bookstores at some point in the future, but there aren’t any now.

Towson finds itself with no bookstores at the same time the world is coming out of an era-defining pandemic, which may have made it less than the best time to launch a bookstore.

Gordy even says a move back to Towson for the chain is not out of the question for Barnes & Noble. “It’s just a matter of making sure they find the right spot,” he says.

For now, lovers of books and those who want to support local businesses in Towson will have to wait.

One reply on “Nothing to read here: Towson has two colleges but zero bookstores. Why is that?”

  1. Why read when you could vape, sculpt belly button lint into a Marvel character’s likeness, or watch Netflix? The author of this piece is probably never invited to parties.

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