Independents hold on in book wars

An apparent resurgence of independent bookstores indicates readers have yet to fully write off local brick-and-mortar retailers.

Patrons browse the shelves at the Book & Game Co.

Patrons browse the shelves at the Book & Game Co. Photo by Andy Porter.

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Amazon has won.

Of this, there is no debate among owners of Walla Walla’s independent bookstores.

The Internet retailer has selection, immediacy, discounts — everything consumers want in accessibility and affordability, all downloadable onto lightweight devices that can easily fit into a purse, satchel or, for those prone to reading on their cellphones, a pocket. Plus it sells print editions at rates lower than retail.

There is no more Borders. Barnes & Noble is languishing. And those were the big-market draws set in larger communities than Walla Walla.

When the local Hastings couldn’t keep its doors open in 2013 after eight years on Ninth Avenue, the magnitude of the changes that had brought three consecutive years of declining sales at the local independents really said something.

The question is: Now what?

“I think any used-book store, if they can hang on, I think people are going to come back,” an optimistic Donna Wright said from behind the counter at Just Right Books.

In the middle space of an Isaacs Avenue commercial strip center, tucked behind a car wash, Wright operates her store with banks of lights turned off. It’s not mood lighting. It’s a cost-cutting measure to counterbalance the decline in book sales.

With a steady stream of customers, she turns the lights on. But on a recent morning just before Christmas and during a particularly quiet patch, she relied on winter’s daylight to illuminate her path through the towering shelves of used books.

Sales have decreased every year since 2010, she said. But the loss appeared to be tapering. Yes, more readers are using tablets and e-books. But she’s also connecting with customers who say that even though they have those devices, they still love books. The feel, the smell, the experience.

“It still pays for itself as far as the bills go,” Wright said of her Eastgate store, 1905 Isaacs Ave.

If not for Social Security, the 80-year-old bibliophile would hardly make a living with her business model: She buys and trades used books. She’ll take mostly anything. Mostly. She pays a quarter of the cover price, and sells them for half.

She keeps a file on hand to keep track of customers’ credit. On one wall, her inventory is stacked almost as high as a beam that supports the ceiling. She keeps “extras” — defined as duplications of duplications — in an overstock room.

Those who come in and make purchases with their credit are asked to use only 80 percent at a time. The remaining 20 percent is needed for cash flow.

On a particularly bad day in November, sales were a paltry $12. The busiest day for the store came weeks later in December, when customers bought $1,000 worth of merchandise. Those days are rare, she said.

“If I didn’t love books so much I don’t know if it would be worth it,” she said.

Book industry in flux

It’s no surprise to anyone who loves a good story that bookstores are in the midst of tremendous conflict.

In the last three years, local retailers Earthlight Books, Book & Game Co. and Just Right Books — the latter which started in the 1990s as the Booktique — have adjusted their operations to move with the changing times. They’re survival mechanisms.

But even as e-book sales reportedly flattened or were expected to be down for most of 2013, as The New York Times reported in December, the unexpected remains around the corner.

Even if e-book sales slow down now, what will happen in the coming years as schools incorporate classroom lessons on tablets, libraries trying to serve their readers increase their e-book selections and scores of young people turn to screens for storytime?

“If you are brought up from a young age to only use a technological device it’s going to turn to where books are the foreign thing and the unusual thing,” said Book & Game Co. co-owner Janelle Bruns. “Who knows where that will lead? It’s hard to have a retail storefront.”

Bruns said her store has had a definite drop in book sales. But in the thick of the loss, it’s also found ways to remain relevant. It has its own e-book system. It also has an array of unique items — Kendama, “Dr. Who” Yahtzee, Killer Bunnies & the Quest for the Magic Carrot — and many more games.

“What we have done is to diversify in order to still remain a general bookstore,” she said. “We try to look for new and unusual things.”

In Walla Walla, most of the stores have found their niche. For Wright, it’s used books. At Book & Game, downtown on the corner of First Avenue and Main Street, it’s new books and an array of toys and games. Just up Main Street at Earthlight, where owner David Cosby is about to make the final payments on the property at possibly one of the most difficult times in the history of books, it’s a combination of used and new.

Costs could offset increased popularity of indie bookstores

Bruns said holiday sales at Book & Game were “fabulous.” Is that proof that a recent story in The Washington Post, heralding a resurgence of indie bookstores, might be right?

According to that piece, the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores, said membership has grown 6.4 percent in the last year to 2,022. Although stores are shutting down, the piece contends many more new independent stores are cropping up.

The indie resurgence, the piece explained, was publishing’s central narrative in 2013.

“We are a lot like Mark Twain: The rumors of our death are a little bit exaggerated,” American Booksellers Association Chief Executive Officer Oren Teicher was quoted as saying. “We have been counted out for a very long time.”

The piece also reported that 64 percent of U.S. book buyers prefer a hybrid of print and digital reading.

But that doesn’t necessarily comfort Cosby, whose inventory between his store, storage units and a warehouse for online sales based in Olympia is estimated between 600,000 and 800,000 titles.

“I could easily start up two or three other bookstores with the stock that I have,” he said.

Gross sales are down and expenses are up. Print, in general, is affected by the digital world. Books are just one part. Newspapers and magazines are another. But look even deeper. People are even buying fewer calendars and greeting cards from his store than in the past, he said. The cost of paper to produce them is prohibitive for many boutique operators.

“We’re also dealing with a minority of people that are readers, period,” he said. “Whether they’re reading books, newspapers, magazines, the backs of milk cartons — the majority of Americans aren’t readers.”

Cosby said used books continue to do well at the store he purchased in 1973, just two years after graduating from Whitman College. He also has a finely tuned system for incorporating his online sales. Amazon, by the way, is one of his biggest outlets.

The store used to be the main source of sales. Two years ago, online sales — at least measured by dollar — eclipsed the brick-and-mortar sales, he said.

Most disturbing to Cosby is the noticeable decline in shoppers of a certain age.

“This is kind of depressing to me: I’m not seeing nearly as many of the middle-school students and up,” he lamented.

That, he said, may be the biggest indicator of the future. But only time will tell.

In the meantime, local indie bookstore operators are united in their determination to remain relevant.

“It’s been a labor of love for 40 years,” Cosby said.

Wright, whose business is for sale, said she intends to carry on with the help of her son, Larry Wright, for as long as she’s able. Even if a buyer never comes.

“We still have people discovering us all the time. I’m just going to keep going with it as long as I can,” she quipped. “And if I drop dead, the kids can decide what they want to do with it.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

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