This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.


With the book business in a constant state of flux, it's hard for bookstore owners to know just what effect the pending closing of Borders stores will have on them.

John Stowe, owner of Prairie Bookshop in Mount Horeb, has seen one clear effect.

"I've had two of their employees come in to ask about jobs," said Stowe, who has owned his store since 1991.

In February, Borders announced it was closing 200 stores throughout the U.S. by the end of April. Among the stores closing is one at 3750 University Ave., near Midvale Boulevard. Another 28 store closings were announced Thursday, none in Wisconsin.

That doesn't mean owners of independent bookstores are jumping for joy.

"No one is happy about the Borders closings," said Meg Z. Smith of the American Booksellers Association "It's not good for the industry. It's not good for people who love books to have fewer places to shop for them. It affects publishers and that's not good for anybody who sells books."

These are tough times for any bookstore, from a chain such as Borders to the small independents. Online retailer Amazon.com continues to be a huge competitor while technology from e-readers is changing how people acquire books.

People still buy them. The Association of American Publishers reports book sales across all platforms increased 3.6 percent in 2010, reaching $11.25 billion. However, sales of adult hardcover books were down 5.1 percent and paperbacks were down 2 percent. Children's book sales were down, too.

E-books become a factor

The big jump came in e-books. For a fee, consumers can download a book to their electronic device. E-book sales jumped 164 percent in 2010 and represented 8.32 percent of the trade book market, compared with 3.2 percent in 2009.

"This is the year that the e-books really seemed to take off and it did impact our sales," said Pat McGowan, president of University Book Store.

When Suzi Cuff opened Books N Beans in Portage in August 2009, she saw few customers with any interest in e-books. Then e-readers became a hot Christmas item and she saw a difference.

"I had a lot of people say they would never get one," she said. "And then I had people coming in and saying, ‘I got one as a gift.'"

Bookstore numbers are steady, Smith said. ABA's membership includes 1,800 stores and Smith said there were 50 new store members in 2010.

"We're finding there are a lot of people still coming into the business and opening up independent bookstores," Smith said.

Those who do find a different market than the one that existed a decade ago.

"There's this opportunity that's opening up at the same time the whole market is in a state of confusion," said Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Booksellers Association.

‘It's about being different'

The key is adaptability, says Deborah Mitchell, executive director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the UW-Madison School of Business.

"Some of these independents got wiped out 10 or 15 years ago when Borders came on the scene because they never figured out they had to create a different value," Mitchell said. "It's about being different and providing something people see worth in."

Cuff's store has a small coffee shop with free Wi-Fi. She also hosts book and music events.

She also sells used books and does well with ordering books because many of her customers have poor Internet service at home.

"I'm not trying to go head-to-head with Barnes & Noble or anybody like that," Cuff said. "You just find your little niche and try to make a living. You don't get rich off a bookstore."

Stowe said he had a good business over the summer, but things slowed considerably in August. While warmer weather brings more people to downtown Mount Horeb, he's worried about factors beyond e-books and Amazon.

"I had a customer tell me the other day he was a state employee and he was going to be taking a big hit and buying less," Stowe said. "There are a lot of state workers and teachers around here."

Remainders — publishers' overstock — have become a big part of his business, Stowe said.

"People will walk out of here with a stack of books they spent $70 or $80 on, but they never buy a $25 book," he said.

Used books also affected

Used bookstores are feeling a pinch, too. At Avol's Books in Downtown Madison, owner Ron Czerwien said he has seen sales decline in the past seven to eight years.

In his store's case, a website has made the difference. He estimates 40 percent of Avol's business comes from online sales.

"It hasn't made up for the loss of the in-store business, but without it, we wouldn't be able to keep the store open," he said.

Avol's also created a niche by concentrating on poetry. The store has a section for Wisconsin poetry and sells new poetry books. The store hosts poetry readings and open-mic events.

He also has been more aggressive in culling inventory.

"When I bought the store from Richard Avol, he said, ‘If we think it's interesting, it can sit there til the right person comes along and finds it,'" Czerwien said. "Now the economics are such we can't wait."

University Book Store, with locations Downtown and at Hilldale Shopping Center, has absorbed some of the loss in book sales by selling apparel and art supplies.

"We'd be in trouble if we just depended on trade books," McGowan said.

Store near Borders might gain

Of all area independent booksellers, University Book Store stands to potentially gain the most from the Borders closing. The shopping center that houses the store is across the street from Borders.

McGowan said staff are asking new customers what they want the store to carry. He also said the store might be able to pick up more author events.

"We want to try to get some of that Borders business and continue to serve the customers who want to go to a store and not just buy electronic or buy online," McGowan said.

At A Room of One's Own, staff asked customers to pledge to buy five more books this year. The Downtown store's owners wanted 365 pledges, a figure that would translate into revenue to help them decide whether to renew their lease. They got more than 400 and the store's Web business quadrupled.

"What it's done is raise people's consciousness," owner Sandi Torkildson said. "People have said, ‘Oh, I had to be reminded. I go over to Amazon and I forgot I could go to you."

Consumers might notice changes in the industry, Torkildson said, but that doesn't mean they see the big picture.

"I do think people take it for granted that it's always going to be around," Torkildson said, "but I don't anymore."

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