Thursday, September 27, 2007

From the front door of Franz Bader Books, an independent art bookstore at 19th and H streets Northwest, owner Sabine Yanul can hear the tourists on the Mall, muffled sounds that signal there is life nearby.

But sounds won’t pay the rent for the aging enterprise, and next month the second-oldest bookstore in Washington and the city’s foremost source for books on architecture will close its doors for the last time and Mrs. Yanul will head into retirement with her husband, Richard.

It’s one more reminder of the challenges that independent bookstores face in Washington and across the country: competition from large chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble and from Internet sites like Amazon — not to mention a declining number of readers.

“Independent bookstores have to offer the public all sorts of things to make it today,” Mrs. Yanul says. “They have got to reinvent themselves by having events, aggressively going for events, being community oriented and having a coffee shop.”

Her small store — founded in 1954 and eclipsed in age only by Reiter’s Scientific and Professional Books on K Street Northwest, opened in 1936 — is rich in history but is not geared toward hard-sell promotion.

“I worked for Franz Bader for 20 years before I bought the store from him almost 20 years ago,” Mrs. Yanul says. “My husband and I were going to retire sooner or later anyway, but probably later.”

Now, given rising rents and other economic pressures, it’s sooner.

The independents’ range

Independent bookstores in Washington and in its suburbs within 10 miles of the White House number about 40 and include branches of two local chains — the general-interest Olsson’s and Karibu Books, which specializes in African heritage.

They cover a wide spectrum ranging from theater to religion to books for children. Some, like Mrs. Yanul’s shop, cater to a specialized market. Others, like Bridge Street Books in Georgetown, offer a wider variety.

But in a time when readers can order their books over the Internet without leaving their homes, or buy them from national chains at a discount, independents have had to fight harder for their share of the market.

Some stores have been able to retain customers by hosting book signings and other events. Others have not adapted so easily.

Does the loss of the legendary Franz Bader Books offer a lesson for the city’s independents?

It may. When Franz Bader, an Austrian Jew who fled Hitler’s shadow over Europe in 1938, opened his shop in Washington 53 years ago. It was not just a store that specialized in visual arts books but an art gallery as well.

And the Franz Bader Gallery abounded in events: It was famed as the first in Washington to show Grandma Moses and the first commercial gallery to exhibit the black expressionist Alma Thomas.

When the gallery closed in 1995, the year after Mr. Bader died, bookstore sales began to decline.

So it may be true that, as Mrs. Yanul suggests, bookstores do well to offer a little something extra.

Reading on the wane

But there’s more to it than events and coffee shops. Even as the seventh annual National Book Festival, opening Saturday on the Mall, stands ready to celebrate the joy of reading, surveys show people are simply not reading as much as they used to.

“Some people think it’s funny to host a book festival when fewer and fewer people are reading,” says Librarian of Congress James Billington, whose staff is organizing the book festival. “We want to promote reading and celebrate it so that it’s fun and not a chore or just an assignment for school.”

Mr. Billington knows he’s standing athwart a trend, but presses on.

“I think we have to realize that reading needs promotion,” he says. “Illiteracy is a nagging problem, and so is aliteracy, which is when people know how to read but they don’t do it.”

The National Endowment for the Arts’ Reading at Risk study, released in 2003, showed a decline in reading among Americans of all ages, regardless of sex and race. According to its figures, between 1982 and 2002 the percentage of Americans reading literature had dropped nearly 10 percentage points, from 56.9 percent in 1992 to 46.7 percent in 2002.

What’s more, the study showed that while reading has declined among all ages, it is falling faster among younger readers.

Dana Gioia, chairman of the endowment, a public agency dedicated to excellence in the arts, draws a direct line from that study to the situation facing booksellers like Franz Bader Books.

“There is a one-to-one correlation between readers and the decline in book sales; with fewer people reading, they’re buying fewer books,” Mr. Gioia says. “I don’t think the study told people anything they didn’t already know.”

To Mr. Gioia, the decline in sales is a blow to the culture itself.

“The health of the independent bookstores is essential to the diversity and vitality of literary life,” he says.

Looking for customers

Rip Claassen, a manager at Backstage Inc., an independent theater book and costume shop on Capitol Hill, has seen a decline in customer appreciation in recent years.

“I have been extremely frustrated the last couple of years,” he says. ” People don’t come to book signings anymore and people don’t visit the store as much as they used to.”

It would be a scary realization for any small-business owner.

“We used to just carry books,” Mr. Claassen says. “We had to add costumes because there wasn’t enough book business to sustain the store.”

But as the shelves of theater books — neatly organized and categorized into sections ranging from theater to costume design, to theory and criticism — sit and await readers, Mr. Claassen works to recruit more business. Nowadays, he says his store relies on word of mouth.

“The Internet has really really hurt the small, independent bookstore, which I don’t understand,” he says. “A book should be used, handled and looked through before it’s purchased, rather than just looking at the cover online.”

That gives a whole new meaning to judging a book by its cover, Mr. Claassen says.

Backstage Inc. does not sell books through its Web site.

Despite his best efforts, Mr. Claassen is finding it difficult to bring in new customers. The mailing list he put together didn’t get much response; the workshops he’s taught at the Actors’ Center — at Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington — cater mostly to people who already know where his store is located, and the 10 percent discount he offers high school drama teachers only does so much.

“People not reading does have an impact, but I still get some young people that come in every week,” he says. “It’s frustrating because I try to have everything in stock that people need, but they’re still buying on the Internet.”

Bright spots

Not everyone takes that view. Dan Cullen, an information director with the American Booksellers Association, the national trade association for independent booksellers, says the market for independents is looking bright.

“There are a lot of indications that independents are still vibrant and a growing network and community of booksellers,” he says.

The ABA’s 20 members in the District include four university bookstores and four museum or association book shops, along with three Olsson’s stores and half a dozen bookstores that stand flintily on their own — among them some of the city’s better-known shops, such as Reiter’s, Franz Bader, Kramerbooks, Chapters and Politics and Prose.

Another several booksellers in the District — including Backstage Inc., Bridge Street Books and Busboys and Poets — stand even more independently outside the ABA fold.

Mr. Cullen says that the ABA has seen more than 200 new independent bookstores open nationally during the last two years also, reversing a trend of store closures that lasted throughout the 1990s.

“It’s hard to see this as a nation of totally disinterested younger readers,” Mr. Cullen says “I’ve been hearing that there’s a strong market for young-adult novels, so clearly young people are still reading.”

Marketing the classics

Some independents in Washington have found success through catering to younger crowds by opening adjoining restaurants, offering events and discounting specialty books.

Bridge Street Books is a small, two-story bookstore that overlooks Rock Creek Parkway in Georgetown. From the outside it looks like any of the other upscale boutiques that line M Street, but the view of downtown Washington from the store is almost unmistakable.

On the uneven sidewalk in front of the shop, a foldable table displays several boxes of discounted books. In one box, names of classic writers — Joyce, Hemingway, Twain — stand out from the black and dark blue covers of the books. In another, faces of American presidents and other famous figures can be seen. Apparently this box holds the discounted biographies.

Inside the store, owner Philip Levy sits behind the cash register. The pastel walls are hard to see behind the shelves of books.

“We’re a store on the edge,” Mr. Levy says. “We can’t be all things to all people, but for the book reader who is looking for a serious, challenging book that’s not hidden behind Danielle Steel and Nora Ephron, then we might be able to help.”

Books line three of the four walls of the store, but for most of the customers who walk in and out of the store, it’s the table outside that draws them in.

“Our sale books aren’t like the ones you’ll find at Barnes and Noble,” Mr. Levy says. “They’re actually books that people will read.”

Knitting, dining, buying

While Mr. Levy relies on unique sale books to draw in customers, other independents host a bevy of events year round to draw customers into the store.

Barbara Meade, one of the owners of Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse in upper Northwest, says her store hosts author events all the time.

“We have something that goes on every single night here in the store, sometimes two or three things on the weekends,” she says. “We usually have at least three or four event requests per day — we just can’t do them all.”

Politics and Prose also plays host to other events: Employees and customers will teach classes on various authors. The store also hosts 10 to 12 book clubs that meet in the store, as well as three knitting groups that knit in the store and buy books on knitting.

“We’re in our 23rd year, and these activities have certainly grown over the years, almost to the point where we don’t have enough space or time to accommodate everything we’d like to do,” Mrs. Meade says.

Three or four times a month, the store will host dinners with authors. The dinners cost $80 and include a signed copy of the author’s book.

School groups are asked in, too. Mrs. Meade says her store will invite three or four schools for certain events and sometimes have up to 150 students in the store, all listening to and watching the authors talk about their work.

“Our sales have grown every year,” she says. “We get healthy increases because you can get here what you can’t get at other stores: knowledgeable staff and great customer service.”

Niche appeal

Finding a niche, or specialty, also can be fruitful for some independent bookstores. While Politics and Prose offers large politics and history sections, Busboys and Poets, an independent near U Street in Northwest, carries books that emphasize social justice and education.

However, Busboys and Poets is unusual in that it is operated by a non-profit organization called Teaching for Change, which aims to promote social and economic justice through its book and video offerings.

“I used to work for Borders, and it would bother me when managers from the corporate offices would come into our store and try and tell us what to carry,” bookstore manager Don Allen says.

“Working here, I know that we are focused on customers and I am able to see how receptive the customers are to what we carry.”

The store, and the accompanying restaurant, stay open late on weekends to cater to the late-night crowd. Its events calendar is loaded with lectures, readings, film screenings and open-mike poetry slams.

Store owner Andy Shallal was on the board for Teaching for Change when he pitched the idea to open a bookstore.

“It is very difficult to have a small bookstore like this that does not have an identity,” he says. “Everything that we carry has the common foundation of civics and social justice.”

The niche appeal seems to be working: Teaching for Change has just opened a second Busboys and Poets, in Shirlington.

Mr. Shallal has a message for the literate and the aliterate alike.

“People should think twice about independent bookstores before they run for the discounts at chain stores,” he says.

“Their money can go a lot further and help the local economy by shopping at an independent — and sometimes their money could be helping a charitable cause.”

WHAT: The Seventh Annual National Book Festival, a celebration of the joy of reading, organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress and hosted by first lady Laura Bush

WHERE: The Mall, between Seventh and 14th streets Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 29, rain or shine

HIGHLIGHTS: About 70 well-known authors, illustrators and poets will talk about and sign their books in seven genre pavilions. Other pavilions will focus on the promotion of reading, libraries and computer access to the Library of Congress’ online holdings. Children can meet storybook and TV characters and NBA/WNBA players on the festival grounds.

TICKETS: Free and open to the public


Independents often specialize

• 545 Eighth St. SE. One of the few places in Washington where theater lovers can buy costumes and criticism in the same store. With a variety of theater-based merchandise, the store also carries plays, monologues, set design guidebooks and more. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 202/544-5744.

• 445 11th St. NW. A literary bookstore might sound snooty, but the selection of poetry, literature and foreign-language books is anything but. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-7 p.m. Saturday. 202/737-5553.

• 319 Seventh St. SE. Shopping for hard-to-find children’s book titles can be done in a snap with the large selection offered here. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. 202/547-5474.

• 1911 I St. NW. Since 1954 Franz Bader Books has sold specialty art books in the fine arts and architecture. It will vacate its premises on Oct. 31 but will close to the public in the third week of October. Closeout sale offers 30 percent off all books, remainders, cards and stationery. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 202/337-5440.

• 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Offers some of the area’s best selections in politics, science and history, but also keeps shelves stocked with children’s books and other genres. 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. 202/364-1919.

•1990 K St. NW. Washington’s oldest bookstore, founded in 1936. Titles on medicine, engineering, business, computers, the sciences, law and economics. 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 202/223-3327.

• 221 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. This Capitol Hill bookseller specializes in books on politics and government and is a great place to grab signed copies of books written by members of Congress. 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. 202/547-BOOK.

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