How do bookstores survive in the digital age?
From increasing availability of digital content to online shopping and a still-sluggish economy, independent bookstores are finding it harder to survive. The Sacramento Press checked out three central city bookstores to see what is working for them.
When Borders Books and More closed last year, emails to the store’s Borders Rewards members cited surges in electronic readers as one of the major reason’s for the bookstore giant’s collapse. Locally, Newsbeat – a Midtown indie newsstand – shut down in November, with the owner pointing to the availability of digital content.
Beers Books, The Book Collector and Time Tested Books – all located within the grid from 24th and J streets to Ninth and S streets – emphasize selling used books.
“We buy and sell as many used books as possible,” said Bill Senecal, manager of Beers Books, located at 915 S St. “We haven’t focused on new books in a long time.”
What new books are sold at Beers are typically ones that are sought after or popular new releases, but 90 percent of the store’s sales come from used titles.
Peter Keat, owner of Time Tested Books, located at 1114 21st St., said that while he sells some used books, the secondhand books give him and his staff greater control on pricing.
“Given the fact that people price check on Amazon.com and other Internet sites, we really have to be pretty careful with our cost and the price of our books,” he said.
Sales have been steady for the past year at Time Tested Books, but Keat said that translates more to “hanging in there” than prospering.
While Beers Books and Time Tested Books carry a mix of new and used, The Book Collector, located at 1008 24th St., only carries new books when they’re from local authors and poets.
“Our focus is still on being an inexpensive, general-use bookstore,” said owner Richard Hansen. “We sell used books and focus on the overall pricing to stay competitive.”
Hansen said the main goal in staying competitive with discount online or secondhand booksellers is to price books to compete with the cost of the title and the shipping.
“People will buy a book for 99 cents and then pay $3.99 in shipping from Amazon,” he said. “The sellers are making their money on the shipping, since it only costs them $1.50, but it’s still costing the buyer $5 to get it to their door.”
Senecal, Keat and Hansen all said the reason they don’t focus on new books is because they can’t compete with nationwide chains, but nationwide bookstores aren’t the biggest reason.
“The big box stores will kill you,” Senecal said. “You’re up against Costco, Target and Walmart.”
Hansen said the markup on new books is so slight that it makes it impossible to compete with the larger stores, which can often negotiate better deals with publishers by buying in bulk.
Each store has its own strategy for staying relevant and profitable in an era dominated by digital media.
“For us, it’s partially the mix of books that we have and the level of customer service we provide, and also the general atmosphere with high ceilings and a lot of light,” said Keat of Time Tested Books.
Keat said one of the strategies Time Tested Books uses is searching for books that customers are looking for, even if it means buying them online.
“It’s a matter of getting what the customer wants in terms of condition and the proper edition,” Keat said, pointing out that online sellers might have a different idea of what “excellent condition” means than a reader.
“We assume the risk for the customer if they aren’t happy with it,” Keat said. “That means they’re not stuck with something they don’t want.”
Keat also hosts regular events, such as author appearances and book signings.
Beers Books keeps customers coming back with competitive prices, a high turnover rate of books and weekly sales – including storewide sales during every Second Saturday Art Walk.
“I think the wide variety of merchandise is really important,” Senecal said. “Some people come back every few days to see what’s new, and also, not every book is on Kindle (and other e-readers).”
Senecal, of Beers Books, and Hansen, of The Book Collector, also mentioned the bookstore’s role in being a place for the “serendipitous find” that only a bookstore can offer.
“When you go to a bookstore, you get the experience of browsing,” Hansen said. “You see things you otherwise wouldn’t look for, and you find new authors that way.”
Hansen said he draws customers into the store with books out front on sale for 25 cents or $1, and hosting events featuring local authors and poets are popular as well.
“We’re going to have a book art workshop here later this year,” Hansen said, adding that the bookstore is not just a place to sell books, but a venue for book-related events.
Another way the bookstores keep in business is by selling online through various outlets, including ABE Books.
All three booksellers mentioned that having a bookstore in an urban area is one of the key ways of keeping culture alive and allowing people easy access to an environment where they can leisurely peruse books, and all three mentioned that the number of bookstores is dwindling.
“It remains to be seen what will happen to the physical book,” Senecal said. “I hope there’s a place for the physical book in the future.”
Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.