Independent Bookstores Fight For Life

Pedestrians walk past Brent's Books & Cards, an independent bookstore in downtown Chicago Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006. Owner Adam Brent is closing the store and will re-open as a discount book store. AP

Adam Brent knew his 11-year-run selling best sellers and new releases was over when mail carriers started walking into his building to deliver books from Amazon.com to the tenants upstairs.

"Literally, they didn't walk downstairs or take the time to make a phone call," Brent said of the neighbors of Brent Books & Cards in the city's business district.

Brent's experience is shared by scores of independent bookstores around the nation that have been knocked out of business by huge chains like Borders Group Inc. and Barnes & Noble Inc., massive retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and, most recently, Internet sites like Amazon.com.

But Brent is also part of a growing number of independent bookstore owners refusing to give up. He's closing his store this month but plans to reopen as a discount book store. Others are luring customers by putting in cafes or opening specialty shops that cater to a specific audience, like mystery lovers. Some are following the lead of public television and selling memberships. Or they're being saved by investors who can't bear the idea of losing these local institutions.

Not only that, but even as 200 to 300 independent book stores close a year, the number of independent book stores opening is creeping up.

"For a long time, from 1992 to 2002, you literally could count on two hands the number of openings," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. "In the last three years there are 60, 70, 80 stores opening" each year, he said.

That's welcome news for an association that's watched its membership plummet from 4,000 to about 1,800 since the early 1990s.

"There are a lot of ways to make money in the business," said Brent, whose father, Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent, closed the city's most famous bookstore after a half century in 1996.

Gary Kleiman, who owns BookBeat in the northern California community of Fairfax, decided the way to do it was to get rid of the clutter and make his store a gathering place.

"We had 10,000 or 13,000 books in the store," said Kleiman. "Now we have maybe 1,500."

Last fall, Kleiman gave all but a handful of his used books to charity. Then he tore down shelves and in their place put tables and chairs and a small stage for live performances. He started offering free wireless Internet access. And to help convince people to take advantage of it all, he got a beer and wine license.

As for the books, most of the ones left are new and they're confined to the perimeter walls. While he's selling about the same number of books as he used to, new books are selling better. And his store has a lot more customers — eating, drinking and listening to music — than he did before. About 60 percent of the store's profits come from the cafe.

Kleiman's drastic move after six years of business is in large part the result two things he came to understand about the Internet.

The first was that there were just too many used books online and they were just too cheap — far cheaper than he could afford to sell them. The second was that for all the talk about the speed of ordering books online, he could be faster.

"I can order today and they will be here tomorrow," he said — one reason customers choose him instead of the Internet.

Some bookstores have survived by giving their customers what they say chain stores often do not: Employees who know what they're talking about.

"You can discuss books with us. We are all readers," said Arlene Lynes, who opened Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Ill., in 2005. "To me, that's what's bringing people back."

  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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