Closing the book

There’s just something about the tactile experience of the weight of a book in your hands: smoothing your fingers over creamy pages, breathing deep the heady scent of new print; the pleasure of gently acquainting yourself with the title at hand by rapidly flipping pages to read a disconnected passage here, the first line of a chapter there.

Then, too, the opportunity to chat with friendly and knowledgeable booksellers who know their product inside out can be enjoyable for the aficionado as well as the lost gift-giver. And don’t forget the joy of spending a leisurely afternoon perusing bookstore shelves, waiting for that elusive thrill that comes when you’ve spotted an unknown gem of a read that will make your next few days pure adventure.

Sadly, another opportunity for the hands-on book-shopping experience is leaving the area with the coming closing at the end of February of The Book Shop at Brookside.

Since 1942 there’s been a bookstore along the strip of shops on 63rd Street in Brookside. Now, after nearly 20 years of owning The Book Shop, Roy Beaty and partner Deborah Cramer have determined that it’s time to close their doors for good after years of fighting to survive.

In 1994 The Book Shop faced the threat of Barnes & Noble’s opening on the Plaza. Although The Book Shop survived, the new chain store proved to be the undoing of area favorite Whistler’s Books in Westport.

The next threat to the independent bookseller was the Internet, primarily Amazon.com. As Cramer says: “It was the combination of the Internet and the superstores. We actually managed to withstand Barnes & Noble on the Plaza. We took a hit and then came back from that but the combination was more than we could withstand.”

“Price-cutting on the Internet has been the death of us. It’s like a catch-22. People won’t buy books from you unless you discount them and if you discount them you can’t make any profit,” admits Beaty. It’s plain economic sense — the larger companies can afford to offer deeper discounts. Cramer points out: “There’s a massive conglomeration going on in the bookselling business. There’s so much pressure on price driven by discount that you have to be big to survive.”

In fact, every bookstore in town braced for a hit over the recent holiday season, but surprisingly everyone, including The Book Shop, had a banner season. It remained a case of too little too late for The Book Shop, though.

Borders Books at 91st and Metcalf had increased sales despite noticing an Amazon presence in the store in the form of several customers’ clutching printed booklists with the competitor’s header. “A lot of people use Amazon directly as a reference and then come to us,” said Associate Manager Diana Timmons. “They still want to come in and look at the item before they buy it.”

That’s exactly what Vivian Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books, had the foresight to predict. Her store has had its own Web site for three years, and it lets online customers pick the order up in the store. “They don’t pay freight and they can look at it before deciding to purchase,” says Jennings.

Rainy Day Books enjoyed increased holiday sales, but Jennings acknowledges it was due to the tremendous effort she and her staff put forth to keep their business thriving. She agrees with Beaty about the inability of the independent bookstores to offer a big discount that would compete with the big chains. While Rainy Day offers a modest discount, Jennings says, “We’re not in the price game, we’re in the service game. That’s what we do.”

Regardless, the correlation between Amazon’s soaring stock and the weekly announcements of yet another independently owned bookstore closing somewhere in the country is hard to miss. Yet Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s creator and main mogul, doesn’t see his company as a threat to the old-fashion way of shopping. Rather, in an ABC interview on New Year’s Eve he said he felt sure that such a gregarious society as ours would never completely turn its back on the face-to-face social interaction that comes with shopping.

However, Beaty and Cramer claim that the Internet has removed their younger customer base. Cramer reports that The Book Shop just didn’t have any younger customers. “They’re very comfortable buying online, whereas we would ride our bikes to our neighborhood shopping area (when we were young).” Beaty adds that although The Book Shop did have a loyal following — so loyal that some have arrived in tears when learning of the closing — they “are getting older now. The new generation coming up just doesn’t come here.”

That may be one reason why several independent bookstores nationwide are banding together with Booksense.com, an Internet site “where you can shop online at your favorite locally owned, independent bookstore.” Booksense has had a few problems getting launched but maintains it will be ready to roll soon. In the interim, the site offers the Booksense 76, a monthly list of recommended titles by its member stores.

Some argue that the loss of a few independent booksellers isn’t a problem and that the market dictates who will survive. But with the loss of revenue incurred when retail dollars are increasingly spent on the Internet and in Johnson County, Kansas City’s funding problems may grow worse. Every small business that folds causes a loss of sales tax, of earnings tax by the businesses’ employees, and, in some cases, of property tax. Over time these closings and shopping trends can create a significant deficit in the Kansas City coffers. In addition, Jennings at Rainy Day points out that e-commerce companies not only don’t pay taxes here but they also don’t contribute to local charities. “If you want a donation for your baseball team or your church or school, where do you go to get that? I’ll bet you don’t go to the Internet for it.”

Supporters of independent bookstores, however, ultimately point to consumers. If consumers want more options when shopping than they’ll find at the cookie-cutter strip malls across America, if they want the hands-on shopping experience the Internet cannot provide, they will need to realize the power behind their spending patterns. “You can’t say ‘I love my local shops’ and then go elsewhere,” Beaty maintains.

There is still the off chance that Cramer and Beaty will find a buyer for The Book Shop but the little interest shown for their for-sale ad makes it seem unlikely. Perhaps the days of dreaming about owning a small business are falling by the wayside in the retail sector. Beaty suggests that an independent bookstore can still be successful if there’s “another source of product or an independent source of income.”

Beaty and Cramer say they know they did everything they could and feel that the time is right to move on. “You can only bleed for so long,” Beaty says. “Times change.” Cramer concurs,”I wish we could have stayed, but time marches on.” Although they agree they have an absence of anger or bitterness over the decision, Cramer admits to a sense of frustration “because we had so few options because of the way the industry is.”

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