Annie Bloom’s Books sits on a busy, narrow, one-way street in quaint, homey Multnomah Village, crammed between a curiosity shop and an Irish Café. Many people from the steady flow of passersby stop to browse through the bin of bargain books sitting on the pavement outside the red brick and tile exterior. A homemade window display advertises “14 Authors Continue the Stories: the Mystery Remains” and “Who is Harris Burdick? Find out on October 25th.”
A pair of wooden doors opens into a light, airy room with a teal carpet and white walls. As I walk in, a woman brushes past me, calling out to a cashier before she leaves, “Thanks for the help!”
“No problem,” answers the cashier, one of three women of varying ages behind the counter. They keep up a constant chatter with themselves and the customers as they work. “That book is so popular with that age group,” one notes as she rings up a Warriors book for a woman and her son. Another listens politely as an eight-year old girl asks about a specific book on dogs; she knows the title (sort of), and thinks the author’s name starts with a T. Or maybe a G. The cashier begins searching...
Looking around, it’s not obvious that the store is struggling to stay in business.
During the past few decades, small, independent bookstores have received several crushing blows that have forced many out of business. First, giant chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and then “big box” stores such as Costco and Wal-Mart, began appearing in greater numbers. Then web-based corporations such as Amazon became popular. All of these different book-buying options offered progressively cheaper prices that were impossible for small independent stores to compete with. As if these companies weren’t competition enough, the economic crash of 2008 not only caused businesses to lose money but also made shoppers more price-conscious and more likely to commit to the cheapest product.
In 2000, the most recent threat to small independent bookstores—and to the printed book itself—was born. On March 14 of that year, the Simon & Schuster publishing house released copies of Stephen King’s novella Riding the Bullet online (Striphas 19). Within twenty-four hours, around half a million people had downloaded the book, and the electronic book, or e-book, revolution had officially begun. In 2002, close to 1 million e-books were sold, according to a report by the Open E-book Forum (Striphas 20). Although slow to begin, recently the popularity of e-books has risen with the release of e-readers such as the Kindle in 2007 (Striphas 20). In 2009, e-book sales grew by one hundred and seventeen percent (Aluetta). People like the compactness of the e-readers, their portability, and some also prefer the experience of reading an e-book, as opposed to that of a physical book (Gunderson). They also love the ease and convenience of online shopping. But the most appealing siren-call of the e-book is its price, which can be up to half the in-store price (Gunderson). Amazon currently sells more electronic books than print books—about one hundred and five e-books for every one hundred print books (Miller and Bosman). At a recent conference of the nation’s top publishing houses, it was predicted that in five years, e-books will make up fifty percent of all of the nation’s book sales (Gunderson).
But the e-book certainly isn’t threatening literacy. E-book readers tend to read and purchase more books than other readers, a recent survey shows (“One in Ten Americans”). Fifty-three percent of those who buy e-readers say that they now read more books than they did before (“One in Ten Americans”).
So where does that place the printed book and booksellers? This very year, in September, Borders closed its last store. But they certainly aren’t the only ones. Around the nation, small, independent bookstores are struggling even more than giant corporations to stay alive. A classic example of an independent book business gone belly-up is Looking Glass Books. This Southeast Portland store closed in March, to the considerable dismay of the community. As the business faced closure, its owner, Karin Anna, described one experience with the e-book threat that particularly stood out for her. A customer came into the store, found a book that was priced for $40, and asked Anna if she could match the online price, which was a full $16 cheaper. "I couldn't and wouldn't,” said Anna. “It was an incredibly painful experience," (qtd. in Hallman).
Will Peters, manager of Annie Bloom’s books, agrees it’s been a struggle to stay in business. I meet with him in the heart of Annie Bloom’s, a low-ceilinged basement with yellow lighting and a labyrinth of desks, chairs, overflowing bookshelves, and blinking computers, which one gets to by going through a small door marked “Employees Only” tucked in the back of the children’s section, and down a flight of rickety stairs covered in tar-paper. The door has a hand-painted cat door installed in it, presumably for the friendly black cat I saw padding through the Young Adult section. An English major in college, Peters says he went into the book business because he “wasn’t fit for a real job.” Tall and white-haired, with a piercing, intelligent gaze intensified by black, thin-framed glasses, Peters possesses a deep, infectious, often-heard laugh. However, while talking about the e-book he assumes a slightly stiff and carefully indifferent air; he is not sure where to stand on this difficult subject. On one hand, one could argue that e-books are encouraging reading in today’s technology-oriented world. On the other hand, they are threatening to drive his store out of business.
Peters also agrees that the book business has been changing over the past several years. There have been “waves of competition,” he says, starting with chain stores and then big box stores, and then online corporations, the biggest challenge right now. E-books have definitely affected his business, but he notes that it’s hard to say how much, especially with the economic recession. He believes that his store is doing quite well, all things considered, but he’s heard from some of his friends in the profession that the last few years have been very rough. He has heard of instances where people went into a store, looked at a book, scanned its barcode, and then bought it online – “no one has dared to try that here, thank goodness,” he says.
Valerie (“Val”) Ryan, owner of Cannon Beach Book Company, a small bookshop in Cannon Beach, puts it more bluntly: her biggest challenge during the past ten years has just been to stay in business. In a small beach town like Cannon Beach, business is seasonal. Though she definitely serves a “loyal local clientele… no matter how loyal, it’s not enough,” she says. Val originally co-owned Cannon Beach Book Company from 1980-84 before leaving the shop to her business partner and moving up to Seattle, where she owned a couple of stores. She then moved back to Cannon Beach and bought back the business from her old partner. Because of her experiences, Val has the unique perspective of having owned bookstores in both small and large towns, and is quick to point out the difference between them. Owning a bookstore in a small town is difficult, she says. “It’s the only game in town, besides a used book shop.”
She agrees that the market for books has been changing a lot over the past few years. Recently she has had to reduce inventory and payrolls. Amazon, she says, is a huge threat to her business. Lately, many tourists have been bringing e-books with them on vacation, since they are more portable than regular books. In a small beach town like Cannon Beach, where most business comes from tourists, this shift to electronic books is quite a blow. One of her latest Facebook posts reads, “If you really want to occupy Wall Street, stop shopping at Amazon!” (Ryan).
When asked his opinion on the e-book, Peters is also not very enthusiastic. “I work with screens all day,” he says, gesturing to the humming computers that surround him. “Why would I want to look at another screen?” He admits that his dislike may be a generational thing, though. “My brain hasn’t changed,” he says ruefully.
However, the biggest problem with e-books, according to Peters, is the monopoly that certain corporations, namely Amazon, have over the business. When a person buys an e-reader through Amazon, he or she can only purchase e-books through Amazon. Although Annie Bloom’s does offer e-books through its website, they are not very popular because of this monopoly. Peters thinks that companies like Amazon should have followed what he calls the “movie model,” where a book could be available only in print for several months, like a movie in theaters, and then be released as an e-book, like DVDs.
Sally McPherson, co-owner of Broadway Books in Northeast Portland since 2007, also has a thing or two to say about big online corporations—namely Amazon. “I always tell people, Amazon is not a bookstore. It’s a Walmart. You don’t call Safeway a bookstore just because they have a few paperbacks at the checkout stand. Amazon sells lawnmowers and shoes and everything in between. It just started out selling books,” she tells me. It’s like buying a car for cheap but then only being able to buy from one gas station, she says. If they decide to dramatically raise the prices, or pump bad-quality gas, you’re stuck. “I’m not anti-e-book,” Sally clarifies. “I’m anti-control.”
Which brings up a crucial point: bookstores aren’t the only stores being threatened by the Internet revolution and online shopping. The reality is that most things are cheaper when ordered through huge corporations online. “It’s not just books. It’s everything,” Val points out. Movies. Music. Clothing. Almost all stores are receiving some kind of online competition, and as a result, many small, community-based shops are closing.
Luckily for bookstores, Peters notes, people still generally seem to prefer physical books to electronic ones. According to a 2010 survey by Harris Interactive, only eight percent of Americans (about one in ten) use an electronic reading device. However, an additional twelve percent plan to buy an e-reader within the next six months. Still, printed books seem to have the clear favor.
Others aren’t so sure. “To survive, independent bookstores must adapt,” writes Tom Hallman, an Oregonian reporter, paraphrasing Courtney Payne, member of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (Hallman).
Tom Gillpatrick, a retail marketing professor at Portland Sate University, also stresses the importance of adapting for small bookstores. "They need to go back and rethink that business model," he says. "Otherwise it'll just be ratcheting down and down—unless there's some huge wave of nostalgia." (qtd. in Gunderson).
There are several ideas concerning how bookstores could adapt to the changing market. One is the proposal of transforming bookstores into showrooms, where shoppers could view books in person before downloading them online (Gunderson). Some bookstores “allow a person to preview a book online at the store and then order it off the store’s website,” observed Payne (qtd. in Hallman). Both Annie Bloom’s Books and Broadway Books offer this option.
Val states that her goal at the moment is to stay abreast of the changes happening in the book industry. She wants to work on regaining customers – a tricky business in a one-dog town like Cannon Beach, where customers are scarce to begin with. Peters agrees about the difficulty of attracting customers. "The biggest challenge now—whether you're an independent or a chain—is getting people into the physical stores," he told a reporter in February (qtd. in Gunderson).
Peters attracts customers by trying to highlight the unique experience of the small independent bookshop, an experience that would be impossible to find online. His bookstore is different from online corporations like Amazon and chains like Barnes & Noble, he says, because Annie Bloom’s is very much a part of the community. The store does school fundraisers and holds book readings and community meetings. “I don’t think they have that on Amazon!” he laughs. Peters also notes the difference in what they carry in the store. “We sell different books here than you would find online,” he tells me, adding that online, people find books through “impulsive clicks,” instead of browsing through a store. Peters often has conversations with frequent customers to find out what they like. “We’ll hear about new books from the publisher and think, ‘oh, Mrs. Jones would really like that!’” he says.
Val also prides herself on her “deep book list.” “Books you find in a grocery store, you will not find in my store,” she promises.
Both Val and Peters also can’t say enough about the importance of loyal customers. “Every day, someone always comes into our store and tells us it’s their first stop when they come into town,” Val says.
Both Val and Peters stress their stores’ excellent customer service. But customer service sometimes isn’t enough. As I chat with Sally, she gets a call from a customer. “Oh, hi Jeanie,” answers Sally in a friendly tone. “That book that was featured on NPR the other day? Oh, do you mean The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper? I’m sorry, it’s all sold out, but we can ship it in a few days… Ok, great! It’s $35.” There’s a long pause as, presumably, the woman at the other end reacts to the price, and Sally’s voice changes. “Ok… well. Give us a call if you change your mind. We also have this new pop-up book on M.C. Escher, there’s only three in stock...” but she eventually hangs up without having made a sale.
Despite this incident, sadly quite a common one in today’s economy, Sally notes that lately there has been an increased interest in shopping local. “People have realized that they need to spend their money where their heart lies,” she tells me. “Their heart doesn’t lie in some warehouse of Amazon’s in California.”
Looking around Cannon Beach Book Company, you can see that it is owned by a person who is truly passionate about books. Posters line the walls, with everything from a vintage “Read classics” sign to an ad for one of Tomie DePaola’s picture books to several bold red “Eat. Sleep. Read Local” banners almost as tall as I am. Shelves line the walls, and book-covered tables compete for floor space so that you have to watch where you walk to avoid bruising yourself. It’s inside this shop where something becomes apparent that neither Val, Peters, nor Sally mentioned, perhaps because it’s so blatantly obvious and also a bit clichéd: what these stores have and what big corporations like Amazon lack is heart. Val, Peters, and Sally aren’t in this business for the money, they’re in it because they love books and reading, and they want to share their love with everyone in their community. The overall profit for the book industry nationally is negative two percent, Sally tells me. “We’re not getting rich here,” she is quick to point out.
In November, novelist Ann Patchett opened a bookstore in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Why? Because with the closure of Borders, there were almost no bookstores to speak of in the city anymore. “I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore,” Ms. Patchett told reporters. “But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore,” (qtd. in Bosman).
Are bookstores really disappearing so quickly that people have to start opening them because they feel it’s their civic duty? Peters doesn’t think so. In fact, he is quite optimistic about the future of the bookstore and the printed word. He cannot say enough about the advantages of the printed book. He likes the “physicality” of books, their smell, their feel. And there are advantages to the printed book, he says, besides their tangible appeal. For example, you can lend or gift a printed book. “You can’t wrap up a Kindle and say ‘here, give this back to me in a few months,’” he says. Because of the advantages of printed books, Peters says that he firmly believes bookstores will always have a place in the future.
Sally disagrees; she says it’s quite possible that in the future there will be no bookstores. Although perhaps a treasonous thought for most people in the book business, one has to wonder, what would it be like if there were no bookstores? How would you browse? Ask for recommendations? Meet authors? Go to book signings? How would you get the search engine to turn up results for “book about skyscrapers on NPR the other day,” or “kid’s book with ‘the dog’ in the title, by someone named T or G”?
“Over the past few decades, in the blink of the eye of history, our culture has begun to go through what promises to be a total metamorphosis,” begins the infamous Gutenberg Elegies, a book by Sven Birkerts that rocked the literary world over fifteen years ago with its dire predictions of the death of the book and which, ironically enough, I was able to preview on Amazon’s website (3). The fact is, technology is developing in today’s society at an unprecedented rate. Four years ago, the Kindle revolutionized the book industry with the first real comprehensive way to read e-books. Just three years later, in 2010, reading e-books became just another app on the iPad. But though Sally is pessimistic about the future of the bookstore, she is cautiously optimistic about the future of the printed word. The book has survived for this long, she says. It is treasured and cherished by many. Those people won’t let it die now, or anytime soon.
“It’s a tough climate now,” Peters told a reporter in January. “But we’re holding our own,” (qtd. in Hallman).
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