Small bookstores fight back

2006-10-14T00:00:00Z Small bookstores fight backThe Associated Press The Associated Press
October 14, 2006 12:00 am  • 

CHICAGO - Adam Brent knew his 11-year-run selling best sellers and new releases was over when mail carriers started walking into his building to deliver books from Amazon.com to the tenants upstairs.

"Literally, they didn't walk downstairs or take the time to make a phone call," Brent said of the neighbors of Brent Books & Cards in the city's business district.

Brent's experience is shared by scores of independent bookstores around the nation that have been knocked out of business by huge chains such as Borders Group Inc. and Barnes & Noble Inc., massive retailers (Wal-Mart Stores Inc.) and most recently Internet sites, including Amazon.com.

But Brent is also part of a growing number of independent bookstore owners refusing to give up. He's closing his store this month but plans to reopen as a discount book store. Others are luring customers by putting in cafes or opening specialty shops that cater to a specific audience, like mystery lovers. Some are following the lead of public television and selling memberships. Or, they're being saved by investors who can't bear the idea of losing these local institutions.

Not only that, but even as 200 to 300 independent bookstores close a year, the number of independent book stores opening is creeping up.

"For a long time, from 1992 to 2002, you literally could count on two hands the number of openings," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. "In the last three years there are 60, 70, 80 stores opening" each year, he said.

That's welcome news for an association that's watched its membership plummet from 4,000 to about 1,800 since the early 1990s.

"There are a lot of ways to make money in the business," said Brent, whose father, Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent, closed the city's most famous bookstore after a half century in 1996.

Gary Kleiman, who owns BookBeat in the northern California community of Fairfax, decided the way to do it was to get rid of the clutter and make his store a gathering place.

"We had 10,000 or 13,000 books in the store," said Kleiman. "Now we have maybe 1,500."

Last fall, Kleiman gave all but a handful of his used books to charity. Then he tore down shelves and in their place put tables and chairs and a small stage for live performances. He started offering free wireless Internet access. And to help convince people to take advantage of it all he got a beer and wine license.

As for the books, most of the ones left are new and they're confined to the perimeter walls. While he's selling about the same number of books as he used to, new books are selling better. And his store has a lot more customers - eating, drinking and listening to music - than he did before.

Kleiman's drastic move after six years of business is in large part the result of two things he came to understand about the Internet.

The first was that there were just too many used books online and they were just too cheap - far cheaper than he could afford to sell them.

The second was that for all the talk about the speed of ordering books online, he could be faster.

"I can order today and they will be here tomorrow," he said - one reason customers choose him instead of the Internet.

Some bookstores have survived by giving their customers what they say chain stores often do not: employees who know what they're talking about.

"You can discuss books with us. We are all readers," said Arlene Lynes, who opened Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock in 2005. "To me, that's what's bringing people back."

Nowhere is the ability to discuss books more important than in mystery bookstores. Jim Huang, who opened The Mystery Company in Carmel, Ind., said a key to the store's success since it opened about 3½ years ago was recognizing that when it comes to mystery books, customers don't just want a place to buy them, they want a place to talk about them.

"We do everything we can think of to get readers to talk," said Huang, whose store has discussion groups, readings by authors and other events.

Huang also knows that when his customers find authors they like, they want to read every one of their books - some of which have long since gone out of print.

That was obvious when he saw a beat-up paperback copy of Kate Flora's "Chosen For Death," the first in a mystery series, going for $30 on the Internet.

Huang approached Flora about publishing the out-of-print book and now it is one of four fiction titles he publishes that are each the first in a series.

"That's where mystery readers want to start reading," he said.

Some bookstores have benefited from their ties to the community. Just this year, 14 investors got out their checkbooks and bought Brazos Bookstore in Houston, an institution for more than 30 years, after the owner announced that he would close it or sell it to take another job.

"There was an uprising of people in the community saying, 'We are not going to let this happen,'" said Jane Moser, the store's manager, who said that when news of the original 14 spread, 11 more joined them.

In Menlo Park, Calif., community members also came forward with funding when Kepler's Books closed in August of 2005. Kepler's reopened that October, thanks to more than $500,000 from 24 investors, and soon created a membership program.

About 2,000 people joined, pumping another $196,000 into the business, said Clark Kepler, whose father founded the store in 1955.

In the Bay Area, at least three other bookstores have implemented their own membership programs, said Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. Depending on the store and how much people give, they receive book bags, discount coupons and invitations to members-only author receptions.

Landon makes it clear, though, that it's not gifts, coupons or special events that is prompting people to buy these memberships.

"It's like with the symphony or a theater company in town," he said. "You are joining but you are really donating. You are really doing it because you want that (store) to be part of the community."

Encouraged as they are by some success stories around the country, bookstore owners note that the brutal business has claimed some of the nation's most famous independent book stores, including Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, Calif., and WordsWorth Books on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. Most recently, Coliseum Books, a famed New York bookstore, announced it was closing for the second time in its 30-year history - this time for good.

Even Kepler's, which is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its reopening, serves as a reminder that independent bookstores remain threatened.

While all the publicity helped prompt more people to buy books from the store, sales have fallen back to where they were before the store closed last year, Kepler said.

"We need to have our loyal shoppers shop more frequently with us," he said. "We need to learn how to fill a need and not just be a soft spot in people's hearts."

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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