Profiles in Courage: Chats with independent bookstore owners, Part II

Ann Lacefield
An Open Book faced a property tax bill that owner Ann Lacefield simply couldn’t pay – so her customers stepped in, raised the money, and saved their store. “I think this community owns the bookstore now,” says Lacefield.

[What do typesetters, shepherds, and independent bookstore owners have in common? That's not the setup for a bad joke – just a recognition that many traditional professions are under pressure these days, not the least of them the business of owning and operating your own bookstore. Facing the pressures of heavy competition from chains with deep pockets, a hesitant economy, and – most recently – assault from the likes of Kindle and the iPad, it is perhaps not surprising that membership in the American Booksellers Association has dropped almost 50 percent over the past 10 years (from about 2,700 members in 2000 to about 1,400 today). Over the course of the summer, the Monitor will be checking in with some of America's most beloved neighborhood booksellers to see how they are surviving or – occasionally – even thriving, in difficult times.]

When Ann Lacefield opened An Open Book in 2006, an independent bookstore seemed to make sense in Greeley, Colo., a college town without a bookstore of its own. But after the economic turndown in 2008, Lacefield thought her days in the business might be numbered. This past spring, she faced a $5,000 property tax bill that she simply couldn’t pay – so her customers stepped in, raised the money, and saved their store. “It wasn’t a handout,” said one of Lacefield’s customers. “It was a hand up.” “I think this community owns the bookstore now,” says Lacefield. Lacefield took a few moments to answer questions from Monitor book editor Marjorie Kehe. Here are excerpts of their conversation:

Q. The story of your customers rallying around you to offer financial support is a touching one. But how do you feel when you look to the future?

A. The economy in this town is still struggling. I know that I’ve got a great deal of support and I’m going to be here for at least the next 15 years. But there isn’t a morning that I don’t wake up and worry. Everyone is struggling. Even Barnes & Noble [in the next town over] with whom I have a very nice relationship is struggling. People have said, “Oh, it’s the Kindle that hurts you.” No, it isn’t. If someone reads the Kindle it means that they read. Hooray for reading! It isn’t the Kindle that hurts us, it’s the economy.

Q. How did you get into bookselling?

A. I’ve been here since 1969. I went to college in this town. I taught here for 30 years. My kids grew up here. I coached soccer here. I sold real estate here while I was teaching. [Eventually] education changed and the teaching changed with all that testing. I owned my own space six blocks from my house. And we didn’t have an independent bookstore in town anymore. I had a great location. It just made sense.

Q. Has it been fun?

A. Yes! Babies are growing up here. Seniors come in and bring their pictures. It’s a really community here in the store. Every day I walk in and think, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Q. Would you do it again?

A. Oh, yes! I don’t know if I would own my own space. Watching property values sink isn’t fun. Dealing with property values is completely different from dealing with a bookselling business.

Q. Any advice for booksellers today?

A. Have connections in the community. Knowing the business is important but if you haven’t made connections in the community – through coaching or through church or through volunteering – you won’t make it. If you don’t come around and greet people and hug them and care about their 40th reunion and give them a Kleenex when they’re grieving, you’re not going to make it.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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