Searching Indie Bookstore Shelves

Rachael Hanel
From the September/October 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When looking to buy a particular book, one has a couple of options: Either go online, punch in a few keystrokes, click a couple of links, and a book will be immediately on its way; or call several bookstores, track down a copy (or wait for it to arrive in stock), and then walk, drive, or take a train to the shop. The first option is quick and easy; the second is time-consuming and inefficient, but supports more local booksellers—an increasingly important act in the age of Amazon, the company whose business model has made it difficult for many independent bookstores to compete.

Ben Purkert, a poet who lives in New York City, grappled with this dilemma. Like many readers, he wants to support his local independents and enjoys the experience of browsing through a physical store, but in the end he wants to know whether a specific book is on the shelves before he makes the trip. Purkert grew frustrated, however, with calling individual stores to confirm books were in stock. “I thought that maybe there were other people getting frustrated in the same way I was,” he says. In response, he founded CityShelf (, a new digital tool that allows users to search the inventories of local bookstores on their mobile devices. A user can simply enter the title of a book, and CityShelf offers a list of local bookstores that carry the title, including the book’s price and in-store availability as well as each store’s location and phone number. Launched last December as a mobile site, CityShelf initially only covered seven bookstores in New York City. This summer, however, Purkert and the CityShelf team rolled out a new app and desktop site that covers stores in New York City as well as in five new locations: Boston; Chicago; Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle.

Purkert describes CityShelf as a “passion project.” He and his partners—technologist Eric Weinstein, designer Liz Oh, and product manager Javier Lopez—created the site in their spare time with no funding. Once they built the platform, they approached bookstores and included those with a searchable inventory on the site. In the few months since the mobile site’s launch, Purkert reports that more than a thousand people have used CityShelf, with about 50 percent of the site’s traffic representing returning users. Ultimately, Purkert would like to see the number of users grow exponentially, and he hopes to add more cities to the site and more developers to the team.

As CityShelf continues to expand, Purkert believes the platform will complement what he sees as a resurgence in indie bookstores and will encourage more readers to choose local brick-and-mortar shops over the convenience of Amazon. “A lot [of bookstores] are not just surviving, but thriving. What that suggests to me is that people are buying local. People love talking to booksellers, they love browsing, and they love getting suggested picks,” he says. “You can buy lightbulbs and diapers online, but a paperback is a bit more sacred.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, published in 2013 by the University of Minnesota Press.