"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser


Bookstores fight to survive latest plot twists

When Vivien Jennings got into the book business in 1975, people still went to the neighborhood bookstore to buy a book.

Her Rainy Day Books, which at the time was just a paperback exchange, was one of some 30 bookstores in the Kansas City area.

That was before national superchains began an aggressive building boom; before big-box stores such as Costco appeared, selling books at steep discounts to lure customers; and before Amazon.com turned books into an online phenomenon.

Today, Rainy Day Books in Fairway is considered the only general-market independent bookstore left in Kansas City, and the store, like other surviving “corner bookstores” across the country, has had to become a lot more than a paperback exchange to keep the doors open.

In Kansas City and elsewhere, the centuries-old book-selling business is in the midst of a plot twist that has left it on less-than-sure footing. Not only have independent bookstores closed, big chains are stumbling while online sales are booming and technology advances present more looming challenges.

For booksellers of all shapes and sizes, competition is fierce, not just from the Internet, but from changing lifestyles, shrinking amounts of leisure time and shifting attitudes about books.

“We’re getting information in different ways,” said Will Leathem, co-owner of Prospero’s Books, a used bookstore on 39th Street in Kansas City.

In this day and age, he said, selling books can be equated to “being a buggy whip salesman five years after Ford rolled the first Model T off the line.”

Muddying the waters even more is the rise of electronic books. Though still a tiny part of the market, these computer-based books are growing in popularity.

Publishing giant Random House saw a 400 percent increase in e-book sales last year and plans to beef up its catalog of e-books to include more than 15,000 titles by the middle of this year.

Already, big trade publishing houses are seeing up to 1 percent of their sales come from electronic books, while some smaller publishers are seeing even higher percentages. As the Amazon Kindle, an electronic reading device, and cell phone applications evolve, e-book sales are expected to explode.

Booksellers could easily be bypassed in e-book transactions, said John Mutter, editor of the online newsletter Shelf Awareness, which tracks the book industry. He asked: “With e-books, how do bookstores make sure they’re in the loop?”

Independent decline

Kansas City’s book landscape has changed dramatically.

The independent stores have mostly gone away. Whistler’s in Westport, one of the last independents, closed in 1997. Rainy Day Books now shares the independent scene with Reading Reptile, a children’s bookstore in Brookside, and I Love a Mystery, a specialty store in Mission.

That’s three — plus several used and religious bookstores — compared with 30 that belonged to a local independent booksellers association when Jennings entered the business in the mid-1970s.

“Many communities have lost their community bookstores,” Jennings said.

Nationally, the American Booksellers Association, a trade group that represents independently owned stores, has some 1,500 members in 2,000 retail locations, compared with 4,000 members in 6,000 retail locations at its peak in the early 1990s.

Between 1994 and 2004 so-called superstores, many owned by Barnes & Noble and Borders Group, expanded across the country. The chains often opened megastores right down the street from independent bookstores.

No comments: