Running an independent bookstore is a popular career goal for many avid readers and writers. But over the past couple of decades, the story has often had an unhappy ending. Among the villains: chain stores, e-readers and Amazon.com.
But while the bookstore business remains a struggle, several local owners say they see reasons for hope as they prepare to celebrate national Independent Bookstore Day on April 30.
“We have survived a lot of fires,” said Lizz Taylor, who for 38 years has owned and run Poor Richard’s Books across from the Old Capitol building in Frankfort. “It’s slowly coming out of a slump.”
While a son’s recent wedding kept Taylor from planning any special events for April 30, many other stores have things in the works. One of the most extensive celebrations will be at The Morris Bookshop in Chevy Chase.
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A dozen local authors will be stopping in The Morris Bookshop on Saturday to sign books and talk with customers. The first 20 customers after the doors open at 10 a.m. will get a free T-shirt. And at 4 p.m., Lexington poet Bianca Spriggs will host a poetry open microphone and adult coloring session.
(If you haven’t been in a bookstore lately, adult coloring books are all the rage. For some reason. “If people are going to self-medicate,” Taylor said, “it’s better than a lot of other things they could do.”
Wyn Morris, a former Joseph-Beth Booksellers employee, opened The Morris Bookshop in 2008 and quickly built a following in Kentucky’s literary community.
Morris said his focus on current literature and new books by Kentucky authors has paid off. So has selling Kentucky-related gift items, from T-shirts to prints by local artists such as Sara and Brian Turner of Cricket Press.
“Our bread and butter is Kentucky,” Morris said. “That’s really what makes us different, and it’s something we take a lot of pride in.”
Morris said he has tried to make the store a “neighborhood hangout” and brings many people in the door with special events, such as author readings and book signings. The store also partners with the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning to handle book sales for its events.
I’ve heard horror stories about e-readers; you’re on a plane and the motherboard dies. It’s a more expensive problem than dropping the paperback in the bathtub.
Kathy Rather, Unique Books
Special events also have been important to Wild Fig Books & Coffee, which writers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis opened on North Limestone last fall. They previously had operated the former Morgan Adams Books, a used bookstore in Meadowthorpe, but refocused the new Wild Fig on new literary selections.
Their regular events include readings and children’s story time. But they’re beginning to wonder if they have overdone the special events.
“We have become known as the event place rather than the book and coffee place,” Davis said. “We have actually had people come in, ask when the next event is and turn around and leave.”
After a great fall opening, Wild Fig struggled during first quarter this year. But Wilkinson and Davis think part of the issue may be that they are among the pioneers of their neighborhood’s revitalization.
“We’re still hopeful about it,” Davis said of the store. “It has taken us a while to figure out what our niche is. We just have to figure out way to stay in business long enough.”
Kathy and Tom Rather started Unique Books in the Woodland Triangle 14 years ago and do a steady business in modern classics, art books and nostalgic mystery fiction.
“We’re hanging in there,” Kathy Rather said. “A used bookstore is a niche market. E-readers have had an effect, but honestly I think it’s going the other way.
“When an e-reader goes out in the middle of your book, you’re stuck,” she said. “I’ve heard horror stories about e-readers; you’re on a plane and the motherboard dies. It’s a more expensive problem than dropping the paperback in the bathtub.”
Taylor is seeing the same thing. “I have customers tell me, ‘I don’t want to read that on my Kindle, even though I have one,’” she said. “They want a book.”
The biggest stumbling block independent bookstores face is their inability to sell mass-market books as cheaply as Amazon.com, other online retailers, or chains such as Barnes & Noble and Wal-mart. They must make up for their price disadvantage in atmosphere, selection and service.
Amazon may have developed sophisticated computer algorithms to help online customers choose books, but they it can’t compete with a well-read bookseller who knows his or her customer, Taylor said.
“It all boils down to customer service,” Morris said. “There are just so many ways to get books anymore.”