Independent Booksellers Stand Strong as Industry Changes
Borders and Joseph-Beth Books left the market, e-books dominate and bookstores adjust.
Independent booksellers like Suzanne DeGaetano didn’t exactly do a jig when larger competitors left the market twice in the past year and a half.
DeGaetano’s Cleveland Heights-based Mac’s Backs gained customers following the closures of Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lyndhurst and a Borders location in Beachwood, but the avid reader and business supporter in her couldn’t allow the co-owner to rejoice.
“It’s really kind of a tragedy when a big room of books is no longer there,” she said. “We know people in the publishing industry, and it’s bad for them because a lot of people got their jobs cut. A lot of books aren’t being sold now.”
Borders, once the country’s second-largest bookseller, closed last summer. It employed about 10,700 people. At the end of the prior year, Joseph-Beth closed several stores across the country.
Without the presence of inventory-rich competitors, it became clear to DeGaetano that readers had been habitually going to places like Borders without giving the smaller guy a chance. DeGaetano, whose store has been in business for 30 years, said the impact has been undeniable.
“We spent most of our time as a bookstore making ends meet,” she said. “The last year, really, is the first time in a long time that I can really pay my vendors on time.
“That’s a direct result from there being more people in the store. I can’t tell you what a great feeling that is to not always have to be making excuses: ‘It’s coming, it’s in the mail.’”
In Mentor, Joe Vento of Mosack’s Church Goods and Religious Gifts says book sales comprise about one-fourth of their sales. The store’s niche has been advantageous but doesn’t guarantee book sales. Vento said offerings and in-store experience are the biggest factors in ensuring purchases.
“I tend to think that book readers are impulse buyers, and I’m one of them,” Joe Vento said. “I think it’s incumbent on our part to keep the right selection of books and have those books properly merchandised in order to catch the interest of that reader and stimulate the impulse buy.”
Few customers have mentioned e-books to the Ventos, but Mosack’s is open to offering them if the demand increases. If their customer base begins following national trends, that shift could happen sooner than later. The Association of American Publishers earlier this year said digital books sales grew by 117 percent in 2011, while all print segments of book sales dropped.
Powered by devices like Amazon’s Kindle, e-books would seem to cut into the profits of brick-and-mortar shops. That’s why Mac’s Backs began offering them in October. The sales have been modest, but DeGaetano said it was important to tap into that market in order to maintain relevancy.
“I’m excited by the technology, too,” she said. “I’m just like everybody else … It’s a new thing, and I wanted to bring that excitement to our store.”
While DeGaetano discussed what she deems an industry “constantly in flux and constantly adjusting,” Collinwood resident Keith Yurgionas perused her poetry section. As a former employee of the coffee shop that was housed in the Beachwood Borders, he’s just glad there are other places for people to congregate, chat and flip pages. He said most of his thoughts were better articulated by Cleveland Heights resident Joseph Zitt, a former Borders employee who wrote about the closings in his book, “19th Nervous Breakdown: Making Human Connections in the Landscape of Commerce.”
“(Zitt) always emphasized the social aspect of a book store,” Yurgionas said. “If you remove the coffee shop element, the actual place where people can get together, then where are we going as a society?”
A small surge?
DeGaetano isn’t worried about communication hubs giving way to e-readers or any other to-be-developed technology. She says she and other independent bookstore owners were surging during the holiday season, or the same nine-week period when Amazon sold three times the amount of Kindle devices consumers bought a year earlier.
“This was the first holiday season that (Borders and Joseph-Beth) were gone, so that’s why the small stores did way better,” DeGaetano said. “Around the country, any place that had a Borders, I think, had that surge.”
The nationwide pitch for consumers to shop local didn’t hurt either, she said.
Jason Merlene, owner of Last Exit Books in Kent, finds it a bit difficult to tell whether “mom and pop” bookstores are experiencing a boost. His own sales have been up ever since his store expanded in late 2010, seemingly in conjunction with more development around Kent State University. Also, his proximity to the college affords him a built-in customer base that other independent stores don’t experience.
Merlene is split regarding the long-term impact e-books will have on brick-and-mortar book businesses. For every consumer who gives up paperbacks in favor of a tablet, another comes to Last Exit partially to rebel against e-readers. It’s not unlike his vinyl purchasers who don’t care much for mp3s, Merlene said.
“I know somebody who sold me all their books because they got a Kindle for Christmas,” he said.
“Then, they hated it so much, they gave it to their friend and came back trying to find all the books he sold me.”