'We're not in it for the money'
BROAD BROOK, CONN. — The swan song of the independent bookstore has been sung – and then sung again. In a bookselling climate dominated by the Internet and chain stores, even the most persistent redoubts are reportedly packing up. Certainly the numbers bear this out. Membership in the trade organization for independently owned bookstores has dropped by more than half in the past decade.
Yet new stores continue to open. "We're like Mark Twain" (who lived long after he was mistakenly reported dead), says Oren Teicher of the American Booksellers Association (ABA). "Rumors of our death are premature."
In 2005 the ABA registered 90 new stores. Last year there were 97, spanning the country from tiny, two-store towns to bursting metropolises. It's a recent shift, and one that should be heartening for famished bookworms. But it leaves one wondering, even worrying, about these novice booksellers, so new to a business where 2 percent is often considered a good margin of profit. Are they blinded by their love of books, harboring romantic dreams of earning a living? Is there even room in the cultural landscape for the independent bookstore? Is it worth the risk?
Like others who set up shop in 2006, Christopher Tarr, owner of Broad Brook Books & Stuff, on a bank of the audibly rushing waterway for which this town was named, has faced his share of doubters. "Everybody's first reaction to a bookstore is, 'Why ?' " he says. But the question never gave him much pause.
As for the other questions, the answer to those, it seems, is yes. These new booksellers are romantic (but also pragmatic), they hope to pull in a salary (or at least not lose money), they believe there absolutely is a place in their communities for independent bookstores, and yes, the risk is well worth it.
Mr. Tarr, his narrow store crowded with the unfinished poplar shelves that he assembled himself, embodies many of the attitudes shared by recently minted booksellers, just as his store reflects some of the trends among the newest crop of bookshops.
His wife grew up in this town of 3,500, a bedroom community 25 minutes from Hartford; he's from the next town over. When the couple moved from Maine, four years ago, Tarr was struck by the lack of things to do in Broad Brook's sliver of a downtown.
"I was adrift and I needed something to do," says Tarr, an English literature major, with a penchant for philosophy, who has always had a "veritable bookstore" in his house. "And this town needed something. So it seemed like the right thing to do."
Other nascent booksellers also talk of filling a community need – by invigorating a sleepy hamlet or revitalizing an urban center – and being met with appreciation.
Fox Tale Books owner Mary McHale imagines she may be able to help give the 2,200 person town of New Durham, N.H., a heart. "Hopefully this will be a starting point," she says. "In some ways, we're like suburbia because everyone has to get in their car to go places." Her bookstore, where the coffee is free, may change that.
At the other end of the spectrum, in the middle of recently hip and thriving downtown Los Angeles, is Julie Swayze's Metropolis Books. Opened last month on a strip that she says was once referred to as the demilitarized zone, Ms. Swayze sees both arty loft-dwellers and homeless residents of the nearby Midnight Mission as part of her customer base.
Broad Brook Books, meanwhile, opened in August, in the 150-year-old red brick building owned by Tarr's mother-in-law, who is also his partner. Monthly rent just covers taxes and utilities, which may be key to staying open.
In the training seminars that her bookstore-consulting company conducts, Donna Paz Kaufman says she advises would-be owners to buy their own building. "Real estate is one of the biggest hurdles," she says. Business at Paz & Associates has held steady over the past 15 years, with about 300 prospective booksellers requesting information each year.
But at the ABA, membership dropped from 4,057 in 1996 to 1,625 members last year. From the mid-'90s until two years ago, store openings could be counted on two hands, says Teicher of the ABA. He speculates that part of what's changed may be that entrepreneurial book lovers have spotted a vacuum for the type of services independents can provide.
Part of what these stores – and the larger independent community – are working to do is find a niche, a way to create an experience the warehouse-size stores cannot, whether through knowledgeable handselling, hosting author and community events, or carrying a particular genre.
The newest booksellers may also be a savvier breed, with a background in business or books, sharpened by seeing independent's decades-long struggle for survival. "Twenty-five years ago they would have leased some space, built some shelves, and opened the door," says Russ Lawrence, ABA president and owner, since 1986, of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Mont. "Now they're getting a business plan together."
As for money, well, as Tarr says, "It wasn't, 'Let's open a bookstore and make a million dollars.' " Indeed. Lisa Sharp of Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Ark., would love to earn a small salary. But if her store "can support itself and still be a contribution to the community," she says, "that would be enough." Her husband is keeping his job as an architect. Similarly, Tarr's wife is a payroll clerk across town. [ Editor's note: The original version misspelled Fayetteville.]
At least there's an upside to the lasting reports of the independents' demise. "In a way, it frees me up to make the bookstore the way that I want it to be," says Adam Tobin, an MFA poetry graduate whose Brooklyn, N.Y., store, Adam's Books, has, for the time being, become his "literary project."