story and photos by Marla Cantrell
Four years ago, Leah Carter and her mother Janean Saunders sat in their antique store on Main Street in Van Buren and decided to shake things up. Saunders, who’d been in the antique and collectibles business for more than 20 years, was watching brick-and-mortar shops fail as online sites like E-Bay worked to lure customers away.
“We decided we needed extra to keep us alive and we added the books and the coffee shop and it was a real good move for us,” Carter said.
Carter and Saunders went on a road trip, bought crates of books and started lining the shelves. At the same time, they carved out a niche for the coffee shop. They didn’t quit selling antiques, but it stopped being their focus. The name of the store changed to “Coffee and a Good Book.”
You’d think Carter, 43, would be worried she’s facing another yet another attack from online sellers. She’s not.
“If there’s something you specifically want, say Hemingway’s “Island in the Stream,” then you can go and look that book up (online), Carter said. “But book people want to browse, they want to hold a book and flip through it.”
Still, the market is changing. In less time than it takes to read two pages by John Grisham, or one paragraph of anything by William Faulkner, you can buy an e-book. Amazon’s Kindle has 390,000 titles available. On Christmas day, the company announced that for the first time ever, customers purchased more Kindle books than physical books, calling it “the most gifted item” in Amazon's history. And just a few days ago, Apple unveiled the iPad.
“I think they’re (e-books) just gadgets,” Carter said. “I don’t think books will ever go away.”
She also thinks the recession that burned so many other businesses, is helping hers.
“People who used to spend $25 on a new book now come in here to buy a gently worn book for $4 or $5. We had a lot of sales at Christmas. It’s been one of our better years.” Carter said.
The shop’s profits have grown 20% in the four years since Carter started selling books and coffee. The strategy to diversify seems to be working, drawing in crossover customers, like the teens who come in to buy vintage clothes and stay to use the shop’s wireless internet access, or coffee drinkers who linger to work their way through the classics.
Ten miles away in downtown Fort Smith, Deborah Busby, owner of Book Ends, is finding her footing in the used book market. She opened the 1,600-square-foot shop in December 2007. In April 2008, one of the area’s most damaging storms hit the area.
“Four months into opening and the hail storm hits,” Busby said. “The roof collapsed and I had to shut down for three months.”
Busby, who rents the space on Garrison Avenue, invested $5,000 to open her store. She now has approximately 12,000 books. In 2009, she turned a small profit. And she doesn’t worry about those online sites selling books for as little as a penny (plus $3.99 in shipping), either. Busby, 55, said Book End customers want the service only a small bookstore can give.
“Most of my customers don’t do online book stores,” Busby said. “And if there is something they can’t find in a used book store, I’ll order it for them.”
While online sellers don’t appear to be a threat, chain stores are.
“It was slow, December was really slow,” Busby said. “I think it had to do the mega-sales the boxes had.”
CHAIN STORE THREAT
Busby is referring to the price war between Target, Wal-Mart and Amazon.com. The retailers were offering certain bestsellers, retailing for between $25 and $35, for only $9. The American Booksellers Association wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking the agency to look into the practice. ABA represents 1,400 independent booksellers with 1,750 locations around the country. www.bookweb.org
Then there’s the competition from chain stores like Hastings in Fort Smith, where customers can buy and trade used books. Still, she’s confident her store will prosper. As a lifelong book lover, she thinks her store is important to the readers in the area. She also wants to help children develop the reading habit.
“I keep a basket of books in the children’s section that are free,” Busby said. “I encourage children to take one home.”
While she feels she is on solid ground, other bookstores in Fort Smith haven’t been as lucky.
The Book Nook, the Christian Family Center and Waldenbooks (in Central Mall) are closing. There might be an unlikely savior on the way. Both Busby and Carter said the “shop local” initiative that’s sweeping the country is bringing in new customers to both downtown areas.
“I think people should support their local bookstores, because we live here, we work here,” Busby said. “If the big guys get the business, we’re not going to be here anymore.”
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) reported that November 2009 book sales increased 10.9% to $808.5 million, and are up 4.9% for the year.