By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Approaching Manhattan’s Housing Works Bookstore Cafe from SoHo’s cobblestone-clad Crosby Street, you may notice a schedule listing the upcoming events: a discussion of how the publishing world differs from academic programs Tuesday, a dating dinner Thursday, or an interactive Q & A session with podcast DJs Friday.
After mentally noting the sessions, you step into a high-ceilinged space stacked with books new and (mostly) old, a simple coffee counter toward the back, plus a number of wooden tables occupied by studious, creative, professional, or chatty patrons.
Current NYC memoirs are plentiful in this downtown spot, but you can also find nostalgic essay chronicles on the Chelsea Hotel in its residency heyday, decades-old rare fiction against the wall in back, not to mention cheap, weathered Mark Twain or Virginia Woolf paperbacks on short, wheeled shelves nestled in the nooks throughout. Two arched staircases lead to a small upper deck, where you linger around tiny tables to check out the biographies of presidents past, or the gender issues of society present, before you descend down the other staircase. Exposed columns work to support the spacious structure and serve as circular shelves where bulky classic painting and contemporary photography books are displayed.
We all acknowledge the digital era in which email has largely usurped “snail mail” correspondence, video-rental stores have all but vanished, and notable magazines are cutting down issues they release. Now, with people seemingly turning to e-books with Nooks and Kindles, how do such independent bookstores manage to stay open?
A networking and auction event at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. Photo courtesy of Freelancers Union.
Nicholas Watson, the Vice President of the Housing Works Bookstore Café, explains to BTR that the store is part of a greater “nonprofit organization that provides services for homeless people living with HIV.” Open since 1996, the Bookstore Café’s proceeds, are used to provide for the mission. Every book they receive is donated – many coming from the street, but some new ones from publishers – and most of the people working there are volunteers.
While the volunteers work to selectively sift through the ample donations and curate the literary arrangement, Watson admits that the store is thriving more through the cafe and events that it hosts rather than selling books. Many events – which include author readings, trivia nights, book club meetings, music performances, and comedy acts – are free, but the cafe can sell wine or beer when they take place. Besides, even if someone visits to cram for class during the day or attend a budget-travel forum at night, chances are that they enjoy books and will possibly purchase something.
Books stacked at Spoonbill and Sugartown in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Malene Hand.
Across the East River, over in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there’s Spoonbill and Sugartown, another independent bookstore. Although it is much smaller and rarely hosts events, the retail space provides its own flavor with a selection of artsy, design, graphic design, and music-oriented books, along with sleeping space for two cozy cats (who receive noticeable recognition).
As for e-reader competition? Jonas Kyle, one of the owners, says their inventory isn’t really Kindle-compatible, that art and design books still adhere to the culture of the printed format itself.
Maintaining their own creative-minded niche on the main commercial drag of Bedford Avenue, Kyle mentions that Idlewild is opening an international language school a few doors down that will sell travel-guide literature.
“We never got into the travel book selection so it’s actually a compliment for us,” he says, looking forward to their future relationship.
Then there’s the all-encompassing, iconic four-story Strand back in Manhattan, a shop where you can easily enter the first floor and browse the front-end tables for the newest releases, or mine through the literary fiction shelves out back for rare Anthony Burgess novels that recount his experiences as a British Colonial Service Officer in Malaya. The second floor offers a finely arranged photography section where you can escape through pages of London street shots. Finally, you can take an elevator up to the rare-and-out-of-print fourth floor for a $3,000 first edition of Cat’s Cradle with Kurt Vonnegut’s signature—or keep it simple with a “Modern Classic” version downstairs for a more frugal rate.
Outside the Strand in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Strand is commonly crowded, but even with the store’s notoriety and size, it still has to keep up with the contemporary electronic times and lure customers to stick with print through their marketing campaign, “Cheaper than E-Books”.
Many booklovers in New York and elsewhere know the Strand, including Kathy Doyle Thomas, the chief strategy officer for Half Price Books, a chain of bookstores located around the country. Thomas is based in Dallas, Texas. Half Price Books doesn’t have any locations in New York, but Thomas speaks about the stores in Seattle and Berkeley, as well as the two new stores that just opened in Illinois and Missouri.
Through their 117 new-and-used locations, she explains, each Half Priced Books is very locally minded because they buy from the community, making the inventory differ greatly for each spot.
She offers some insight on the dynamics of the independent bookstore business.
“Most of the independents that are doing well do not depend on making money off The New York Times Bestseller List,” she says, adding that employees care to contribute their own literary knowledge so their business isn’t about the romance novels or the newest Stephen King book.
E-readers certainly eat into the bookstore business, she explains, and while Half Price Books is expanding into new cities, they strategically reason not to open up multiple spots in the same place when sales are down. She says that the biggest competitor for bookstores, big and small, isn’t actually Nook or Kindle, but Amazon.com.
Even so, implicit international problems arise from the e-book phenomenon.
“What worries me is we’re not going to have as many books to donate all over the world,” Thomas says. “The literacy groups are very worried about it.”
Printings are decreasing due to e-books; Thomas references a friend who works for a publishing company informing her that business was down 20 percent. In the long run, if fewer books are printed, that means fewer exist in circulation, resulting in emptier shelves at community libraries in India or children’s schools around Africa, which ultimately hurts literacy rates.
More directly to bookstores, though, she says “an e-reader is really a different type of customer.” According to Thomas, there’s a difference between interacting with a convenient search engine and algorithmic electronic selection service versus a well-read bookstore employee. Bookstore customers come by for a variety of reasons, whether it’s to find a quirky gift for a relative, stumble upon a weird historiography, or browse through attractive cookbook photographs and then decipher the difficulty of an accompanying recipe.
“Too many people like the tactile part of books,” she says.
Thomas acknowledges she totally understands the light weight and versatility one would prefer in a Kindle, but hard-copy readers can more easily exercise their reading idiosyncrasies onto physical books: jotting notes, underlining vocabulary terms, seeing the volume that remains after closing covers, tearing out pages, flipping to the end to cheat the chapters.
Books can be important items in people’s domestic realms whether they enjoy organizing personal libraries to indicate being well-read, or even they buy books whose spines’ shades sync with the color scheme of their interior decorating.
A Half Price Books shop. Photo courtesy of Christopher Sessums.
Additionally, Thomas notes that publishers and stores “don’t want the same thing that happened to the music industry” to happen to books, so they’ve become extra careful in protecting their field and ensuring customer interaction. Though many record stores have shut down at this point, she says there’s currently a resurgence of LPs as audiophiles often weren’t satiated with the digital sonic options that’d been replacing records.
Ultimately, no matter how comprehensive the layout of the shop is–or how a silver book spine matches your shimmering drapes–the content of the book itself is paramount, and people tend to read and e-read different material. A dense history book meant for substantial digestion and future reference doesn’t work so well on the electronic format, Thomas says. Most e-books, she continues, are fiction selections that are easy to breeze through and then move on to the next title. An example she gives is Fifty Shades of Grey, explaining how it sold so many e-reader copies because customers “didn’t want people to know they were reading it,” laughing about how the electronic device offers the advantage of secrecy.
Watson also brings up the point that people read different materials on e-readers and, coincidentally, that “Fifty Shades of Grey would have never sold that well before” the technology. For independent bookstores, he says it’s important to not only be oriented for selling the most books, but providing a notable customer experience and enhancing the distinctive curatorial angle, noting how he takes personal mystery recommendations from the worker who arranges that genre in a first-floor corner at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.
“People talk a lot about how the independent bookstores are in danger and that we’re going to lose all our literary culture, but I think there are enough people that value it,” he says, predicting that these businesses will still be around in ten or twenty years.
“There may be less of them, and they may be more specialized, but I think when you’re an independent bookstore you’re just trying to position yourself to be one of those [that survive].”