Books have been around for millennia, but in the last decade, they've made a huge technical jump. In 2012, readers scan screens, not paper.
Internet sales challenge retail outlets nationwide. But independent shop owners in Albuquerque say the demand for traditional books and support for bookstores are far from lost.
Page One was established by Steve Stout in 1981. After 30 successful years in February of 2011, the store filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Page One was requesting some time to reorganize as debts mounted in times of lagging sales. “Obviously that was kind of a wake-up call,” says Page One’s buyer Craig Chrissinger. “What is working the best is used books because a lot of stuff has not come out electronically yet.” The store scaled down but continues to sell new books, while focusing more on used and rare items. The plan keeps costs down and maintains a customer base that wants physical books.
Chrissinger acknowledges that times have changed. “Just like every other piece of retail and any other business in this country and probably throughout the world, bookstores have seen a definite change with the economy since probably 2007. It’s a struggle, especially when you have large chains with much more buying power.” Large online companies allowing people to order anything they want on the cheap threatens the livelihood of businesses that pay for a storefront and qualified employees. For customers wanting to find an out-of-print book and look at its physical condition, bookstores are the only way to go, Chrissinger says.
Jerry Lane is the owner of long-standing used bookstore Book Stop. He has seen that while rent goes up, demand and profit for books stays the same. With competition from all sides—even grocery stores—bookstores face a conundrum. “We live in a pretty disposable society," says Lane. “I’m probably at the tail end of that last generation that thinks opening a house full of these things is a good deal.”
“We have customers that keep coming back in: I’m so grateful”
Bookworks in the North Valley continues to carry new books. Co-owner Wyatt Wegrzyn is enthusiastic about the store and the customers that sustain it. “The only reason we’re around is because we have a supportive community,” he says. “We have customers that keep coming back in. I’m so grateful.”
Bookworks was opened in 1984 by Nancy Rutland, who Lane says “really knew what she was doing.” In 2010 the store was taken over by two longtime employees, Wegrzyn and Danielle Foster, and they’ve continued to host events on a regular basis, bringing in both authors and readers. Wegrzyn recognizes the changing pace of business but makes the point that there are still niches in which to survive. "You’re not gonna give a Kindle to a 3-year-old. Being read to and reading to other people is also another experience that you have.”
E-readers like Kindle are popular because they’re handy and lightweight. They make it possible for people to carry hundreds of books at a time. They enlarge font for people with vision problems. It’s convenient to download books online.
E-readers are also said to be more eco-conscious than paper books. But according to Ted Genoways in his article “The Price of the Paperless Revolution,” the production of one of e-reader is the environmental equivalent of 50 books. People replace their devices about every two years on average, says Genoways. Next year’s predicted “carbon footprint” of 10 million e-readers is the same as 250 million new books. That’s about 10 times the number of books sold in the United States last year.
Though they have the potential to help reduce paper waste, e-readers don’t solve the problems of a wasteful cultural mindset. Wegrzyn points out that plastics aren't always a renewable resource, but paper is. “The piles of plastic get built up,” he says, but you can recycle paper.
Morwyn Mullins, proprietor of Bird Song Used Books, says she hopes the publishing industry can learn to be more realistic by coming out with paperbacks before hardbacks and scaling back sales expectations. If they can do smaller runs, she says, then perhaps publishers will save money, new books will be more affordable and paper waste will be reduced. As far as e-readers, Mullins says: “I think one more venue for reading is a great idea. The more people read, the more they can appreciate books in general.” But one downside, says Mullins, is that people may be discouraged when they limit their reading experience to a screen, and by the end of the day, their eyes are tired. (Some devices have a special kind of “e-ink” designed to mimic the contrast between words on paper without a backlight, which is said to be better on the eyes.)
Mullins says paper books still hold a valued place in society. “When television came out, it did not kill radio. Radio’s still going strong. It just found a new way ... into people’s hearts and minds,” she says. “There are so many books that exist in the world. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll go away or that people will stop wanting them.”
Owner Stout at Page One and Wegrzyn at Bookworks both mention they are making it easy to order books online through their websites, whether paperback, hardback or even e-books facilitated through a third party, such as Kobo.
Booksellers remain optimistic that print won't die, though Chrissinger says it's hard to tell exactly what will happen moving forward. "The industry’s in a lot of flux right now. The publishers can’t figure out exactly what’s going on. The editors can’t figure out exactly what’s going on. Authors can’t figure out exactly what’s going on. They’re all kind of waiting to see what happens.”
The tactile aspect of paper books is irreplaceable. While the act of reading is imaginative, not dependent on the font or form, the physical nature of books themselves can be important. For Wegrzyn, books are nostalgic: “I like looking at my bookshelf and seeing experiences I’ve had. I read that book there. I read this book during that time in my life. You can relive the experience. I don’t get that if I look at a file.”
Steve Brill of Downtown Books says there is no replacing the smell of a paper-made book, nor the serendipity of finding something by accident.
Lane has thought about what would happen if he closed the Book Stop, but he says a retired life of mumbling into his fuzzy slippers is not strong motivation. He loves his store. “There’s something goofy almost every day. Some customer, a book you’ve never heard of before, all kinds of stuff. It keeps it from being boring. I think there’ll still be little shops like this,” says Lane. “I don’t see it disappearing altogether.”
Lane also says he's been working on an invention for e-readers. It releases puffs of dust and mold to help recreate the original experience of reading a book. A friend told him to keep the initial price low; the real money will be in refills.