Independent book stores rebounding despite Internet, e-readers, big-box competition

After a long decline, independent bookstores are coming back, according to the American Booksellers

Paula Dunnivant of Clifton Park loves a good book, and not just to read it.

She likes to touch the book, to open it up. She wants to hear the creak of its spine and enjoy the aroma of its pages. And she wants to roam the aisles of a bookstore and be surrounded by books of all types and kinds.

The Internet does not provide these experiences, and big-box bookstores make her feel rushed. So when she found East Line Books in Clifton Park, she discovered book heaven.

“I go to a lot of bookstores, and this is a neat one. This is more friendly. People talk to you. You don’t have someone following you around, and you get good bargains here,” Dunnivant said.

East Line Books is an independent bookstore, one of several in the Capital Region weathering a tough economy and the banes of small bookstores: the Internet, electronic books and stiff competition from big chain bookstores and major retailers like Walmart.

Independents’ comeback

After a long decline, independent bookstores are coming back, according to the American Booksellers Association, a trade group representing independent bookstores nationwide. The association said membership grew 7 percent, to 1,500, in 2011 from 2010. Still, membership is far less than the 4,000 the association had in the 1990s, said spokesman Dan Cullen.

At the same time, market share by the independent book sellers remained flat in 2011 from the year before, Cullen said, at 7 percent to 10 percent of trade book sales. In the 1990s, association members had 20 percent of the market.

Cullen said independent bookstores are on the rebound because they offer consumers experience, expertise and value that translate into success. The demise of the Borders chain, he said, is lamentable, but may provide independent booksellers a needed boost.

Cullen said some association members have already seen an increase in business when a Borders store closed in their area, but it is still too early to tell if the growth will be sustained.

The greater Capital Region has witnessed at least two bookstore openings in recent years — East Line Books in Clifton Park, which opened four years ago, and Dog Ate My Homework in Glens Falls, which opened five years ago. Red Fox Books in Glens Falls opened in 2006.

Meanwhile, an independent stalwart — The Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady — is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Several have closed, as well.

The owners of the operating stores said they are holding their own, but said selling books is difficult, especially in an economy that appears frozen in recession. As a whole, they are surviving because they have carved out niches in the highly competitive market. They have done so by carrying items the big box stores do not, by diversifying their product lines beyond books and by offering good customer service, like ordering books online for customers and providing free shipping. They also have staff who can talk books to customers.

At least one owner, Robyn Ringler of East Line Books, said she plans to expand. She sees the demise of Borders as a result of the chain’s inability to meet customer needs, a mistake she does not intend to repeat. “I think Borders’ going out of business indicates that box stores are not providing what people want in these tough economy times. People cannot pay $30 for a book. I discount everything,” she said.

Community sales

Ringler specializes in new and used books. She buys books wholesale or gets books donated to her, and then she marks them up slightly. “I buy books at community sales all over the Northeast. I get them for two or three dollars and mark them up based on their popularity, their condition and on what I paid,” she said.

Ringler calls herself “the queen of the backlist,” which contains all the prior books by an author. “So if you find you love a certain author, you cannot find the old books, the backlist, at Borders or Barnes & Noble, but you can find them at my store,” she said.

Once Borders closes its stores in the Capital Region, Ringler will expand her hours, her staff and her inventory. “Borders’ closing will help me because I am the only bookstore that carries new books for the Clifton Park area between Albany and Saratoga,” she said.

Despite her optimism, Ringler said running a bookstore is not easy. During the first two years of her operation, she lost money and earned a profit of less than $200 in the third year. She is hoping to see a stronger profit margin this year.

Ringler said she decided to open her store because, “I thought Clifton Park has such a big school district, so many kids, I thought there was a need. The community wants a bookstore, and so I am it.”

She said she is on “the 10-year plan. I am going to stay here because I love it here so much and the community loves it so much. The community supports me a tremendous amount by donating books,” and she supports the community by offering low-cost reading camps. “If people can’t afford to pay for camp, I will take it in kind through fresh raspberries and eggs,” she said.


Janet Hutchison, owner of The Open Door Book Store in Schenectady, said she is adapting her business to survive in a tough market. “Any retail business is difficult right now. People have less money to spend and they have tough decisions to make. We have unique issues that make book selling difficult — that is e-books,” she said.

Hutchison said she has started a service on her website that lets people buy e-books. She also sells toys, gifts, jewelry and cards.

“We were one of the first bookstores to diversify,” she said. “Many booksellers realize they have to diversify and carry many products.”

The Open Door has a strong line of children’s books — it opened as a children’s bookstore — but it also carries bestsellers from book lists and books reviewed by independent booksellers. “We also do books of local interest. They have always been very strong, and we will take a chance on a small, independent publisher that people may not be aware of,” Hutchison said.

As part of her commitment to the community, Hutchison said her store offers free crafts and story programs for children, “lots and lots of book signings,” and she makes donations and buys advertising to support local arts groups.

Michael Smith, owner of Dog Ate My Homework, said he survives by having a diversified line of products. He sells toys, teacher resources and books to the under-12 crowd. “Most of the people who buy books from me do not have Kindles or Nooks,” Smith said, referencing the electronic reading devices.

Also, he offers a wider selection of titles than the big box stores. “I have over 4,000-5,000 titles. They may discount, but selection is important.”

Most important of all, he said, “We know our customers and we know what they want.”

Internet competition

As with the other booksellers, Smith said he faces stiff competition from the Internet for book sales. “I do not sell on the Internet yet. But the Internet is like no other competitor that retailers have. It is a difficult competitor, but we have personal service, customer service and the immediate gratification of the purchase,” he said. “Brick and mortar stores have their needs in our society.”

Hutchison said she sees a future for independent booksellers, provided there is strong community support behind them. “It is hard work and it takes a public appreciating having their bookstores close by, in their neighborhoods, and a public supporting an independent store and the local economy,” she said.

As for the effect of e-books on her business, Hutchison said they have a place in the market. “People like to have them when they are traveling, but nothing will replace the experience an adult can have of holding a child in one’s lap and flipping through the pages of a book.”

Categories: Business, Schenectady County

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