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Guest blog: Will the Espresso Book Machine help to save bookstores?

By Rebekah Denn / November 23, 2009



This has been a hard season for bookstores in Seattle. Bailey/Coy, a mainstay independent store since the early 1980s, just closed its doors. The Elliott Bay Bookstore, pride of the city’s historic Pioneer Square district, is considering moving out of the character-filled building that’s been its home for more than 30 years. At this point, it’s hard to imagine any other outpost truly being Elliott Bay, the way that Cody’s Books in Berkeley never seemed like itself away from its landmark Telegraph Avenue origins.

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Worried book-lovers are continuing the old debates on whether independent bookstores can survive in an era of online retailers and big-box discounts. Meanwhile, though I’m intrigued by a new feature I stumbled on at another favorite Northwest independent, Village Books in Bellingham. In the bookstore’s basement sits a sizable mechanical newcomer known as the Espresso Book Machine. It’s essentially a mini printing-press, meant to print titles on demand.

According to the website of its manufacturer, On Demand Books, the machine can print, bind, and trim a 300-page book in less than four minutes. It can be used to upload and print self-published books, but the broader theory is that bookstores will use it to obtain near-instant access to far more titles than they could otherwise afford to stock on the shelves. Some 800,000 copyrighted books are now in the machine’s catalog.

A handful of the commercial machines are now operating in locations as far-flung as Montreal and London. Looking at the upcoming sites, I see that another independent Northwest mainstay, Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, just north of Seattle, is investing in one of the $100,000 machines as well.

With electronic books becoming more prevalent, Village Books wrote on its website, the print-on-demand machine is “a way to keep bookstores and libraries in the game.” I can’t predict if that’s true, but I’m just glad we still have bookstores here that are trying as hard as they can to play.

Rebekah Denn writes at eatallaboutit.com.

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