- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

From combined dispatches

Adam Brent knew his 11-year-run selling best sellers and new releases was over when mail carriers started walking into his building to deliver books from Amazon.com to the tenants upstairs.

“Literally, they didn’t walk downstairs or take the time to make a phone call,” Mr. Brent said of the neighbors of Brent Books & Cards in Chicago’s business district.

Mr. Brent’s experience is shared by scores of independent bookstores across the nation that have been put out of business by huge chains like Borders Group Inc. and Barnes & Noble Inc., discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and, most recently, Internet sites like Amazon.com.

Mitch Brown, general manager of Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in D.C.’s Dupont Circle, said independent bookselling is a case of “only the strong survive.”

“The [stores] that know what they’re doing, are doing fine,” Mr. Brown said. “The [stores] that were having trouble before the Internet just couldn’t compete.”

Mr. Brown explained that Kramerbooks, a D.C. institution for 30 years, has no interest in doing business on the Internet.

“We’d never be able to provide that money-losing venture called free shipping,” he said, adding that there is a limit to how much one can learn about books on the Internet.

Knowing what a customer is buying helps keep independent booksellers in business, Mr. Brown said.

“If you have questions, [or] you want to build a rapport with someone — that takes actually coming into a store.”

Jim Toole, owner of Capitol Hill Books on C Street Southeast, said that the store he has been running for nearly 12 years is slowly losing business to Web sites that sell used books.

“Guys like me are faced with increasing rents and decreasing sales,” he said.

Unlike Kramerbooks, Mr. Toole has sold used books online for about a year. That, he said, is the only way to sell the better quality books that come into his store.

“I can’t just sit here and sell the best books to everybody who walks in. I have to put the expensive books online or I’m going to be out of business,” he said.

These independent bookstore owners are part of a growing number who refuse to give up.

Mr. Brent is closing his Chicago store this month but plans to reopen as a discount bookstore. Others are luring customers by putting in cafes or opening specialty shops that cater to a specific audience, like mystery lovers. Some are following the lead of public television and selling memberships. Or they are being saved by investors who can’t bear the idea of losing these local institutions.

Not only that, but even as 200 to 300 independent book stores close a year, the number of independent bookstores opening is creeping up.

“For a long time, from 1992 to 2002, you literally could count on two hands the number of openings,” said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. “In the last three years there are 60, 70, 80 stores opening” each year.

That’s welcome news for an association that has watched its membership plummet from 4,000 to about 1,800 since the early 1990s.

“There are a lot of ways to make money in the business,” said Mr. Brent, whose father, Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent, closed the city’s most famous bookstore after a half century in 1996.

Gary Kleiman, who owns BookBeat in the Northern California community of Fairfax, decided the way to do it was to get rid of the clutter and make his store a gathering place.

“We had 10,000 or 13,000 books in the store,” said Mr. Kleiman. “Now we have maybe 1,500.”

Last fall, Mr. Kleiman gave all but a handful of his used books to charity. Then he tore down shelves and in their place put tables and chairs and a small stage for live performances. He started offering free wireless Internet access. And to help persuade people to take advantage of it all, he got a beer-and-wine license.

His store has a lot more customers than it did before the changes. About 60 percent of the store’s profits come from the cafe.

Mr. Kleiman’s drastic move after six years of business is in large part the result of two things he came to understand about the Internet.

The first was that there were just too many used books online and they were just too cheap — far cheaper than he could afford to sell them.

The second was that for all the talk about the speed of ordering books online, he could be faster.

“I can order today and they will be here tomorrow,” he said — one reason customers choose him instead of the Internet.

Some bookstores have survived by giving their customers what they say chain stores often do not: employees who know what they are talking about.

“You can discuss books with us. We are all readers,” said Arlene Lynes, who opened Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Ill., last year. “To me, that’s what’s bringing people back.”

Some bookstores have benefited from their ties to the community. Just this year, 14 investors got out their checkbooks and bought Brazos Bookstore in Houston, an institution for more than 30 years, after the owner announced that he would close it or sell it to take another job.

“There was an uprising of people in the community saying, ‘We are not going to let this happen,’” said Jane Moser, the store’s manager, who recalled that when news of the original 14 spread, 11 more joined them.

Encouraged as they are by some success stories throughout the country, bookstore owners note that the brutal business has claimed some of the nation’s most famous independent bookstores, including Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, Calif., and WordsWorth Books on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. Most recently, Coliseum Books, a famed New York bookstore, announced it was closing for the second time in its 30-year history — this time for good.

Even the rescue of Brazos Bookstore serves as a reminder that independent bookstores remain threatened.

“I’m struggling to get from the gutter to the curb,” said Mr. Toole of Capitol Hill Books. As long as people continue to buy and sell used books online, he said, independent used stores like his will be hard-pressed to compete.

• Jonathan Swigert contributed this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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