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Sunday, December 9 , 2018, 12:17 pm | Fair 66º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: Are Independent Booksellers Dying or Growing?

About two decades ago, the retail and tech industries were ready to write obituaries for local stucco and mortar bookstores. About that time chain stores came in with huge markdowns and large floor space competing with our smaller independent shops.

Then there was Amazon with discounted books and super fast delivery. So what if you didn’t get to browse book shelves. Cheap and fast was the answer.

Next came e-books, climbing to success with increases reaching four-digit percentages. Hey, who would want a bulky, old fashioned book when a slim, au courant e-reader would be the stylish way of showing smarts? Obviously electronic readers would kill off hard print in the long run.

Reality today? Many choose and prefer e-readers, but not everyone. Declining sales of e-books in the past three or four years may hint to the importance and lasting quality of real books, the kind with heft when holding in your hands, the kind you feel and hear the turn of pages, the kind you read with a bit more ease on the eyes.

The power of such a book plays into another encouraging statistic: independent bookstores increased by 27 percent from 2009 to 2014 according to the American Booksellers Association. At the same time, sales at independent bookstores allegedly outpaced the growth of book sales in general.

How do these changes affect Santa Barbara’s bookstores?

When the growth of chain stores was reversed, it was felt here early in 2011. That February, Borders on State Street closed, followed three months later by Barnes & Noble a half a block away.

That left us with several independents in the Santa Barbara area, although we had lost a favorite, the Earthling Bookstore, a few years before.

Among the many surviving local vendors, supposedly 20, are Chaucer’s Bookstore and Tecolote Book Shop with new books, The Book Den with new and used, Lost Horizon Bookstore with used and rare books and Mesa Bookstore with its great collection of paperbacks and used books.

Just how are they doing now? I spoke with Book Den at Anapamu in downtown and Chaucer’s at Loreto Plaza on Upper State Street.

“When Barnes & Noble and Borders closed we saw a decent jump in business,” said Ed Conklin, formerly of Dutton’s Books in Los Angles and currently a buyer for Chaucer’s. “It’s amazing, but now we seem to have people in the store always.”

Eric Kelley, who became owner of the 114-year-old Book Den in 1979, felt a similar impact.

“We saw a change about six years ago when Barnes & Noble left with lots of new buyers,” he said. “A little more than half of our customers are tourists. That means good sales, but they don’t usually come back. I smile when tourists come in and often say, ‘I wish we had a bookstore like this in our town.’

“We retailers have found that locals tend to come downtown to see the arts or go to restaurants but not necessarily to buy, so we count on our tourists, too.”

Mahri Kerley is the founder and owner of Chaucer’s since 1974.

“People think it’s easy to run a bookstore, but it’s not,” she said. “Businesses that close most often are bookstores and restaurants.”

In Santa Barbara, a rise in rent can bring down a bookstore. An insider told me that one of the main reasons, among others, Barnes & Noble left town was a jump in rent for the State Street location. When the store opened, it was $30,000 per month. When it closed, the rent had reached $75,000 per month.

Kelley reveals the dilemma of his business facing rent increases.

“Bookstores are at a disadvantage,” he said. “If the rent is raised, we can’t jack up the price of books. The publishers already have it on the book.”

The Internet has had a multilayered effect on book sales and stores. According to Kelley, one is a change in customer preferences.

“The biggest change has been sales of reference books,” he explained. “People now use the Internet to find recipes so cookbooks sales have changed. The ones that do sell are usually by a celebrity chef or someone telling stories with the recipe.

“Same for monograph books. People don’t need them in hand if they want to see a copy of the Mona Lisa. They can go to the Internet and get it.

He adds, “Poetry, literature, religions, philosophy and theology are still strong sellers.”

Kerley has seen a difference in trends.

“Years ago we had particular books that sold well like topics about or by Native Americans, or New Age, or mythology,” she said. “The past few years we haven’t had those trends so much. Maybe it’s due to the Internet, where things catch on more quickly. People can flit from one category to another online.”

Since both stores have long been in the community, I asked what has kept their stores going through it all. Kerley answered without hesitation.

“Our key is inventory,” she said. “If the book a customer wants is on the shelf, it will sell. We are committed to books on the shelves, not other gifts and retail taking up space.”

She then laughed remembering an incident back at their former location, a small storefront in Five Points.

“I would go around the shelves every Monday morning to change the face-out books,” she said. “Later that day a woman came in and spent over an hour in the store. She ended up buying a stack of books. When I checked them out, I found each one was one I had pulled out to display face forward that morning. It was scary to realize what I did had such an effect.”

Conklin added his take on another successful effort at Chaucer’s.

“We rotate displays,” he said. “A curator of books comes in periodically to choose the books to put on our front tables. They help draw people inside the store.”

At Book Den, Kelley admits as a bookseller that he is “not a specialist but a generalist.”

“I keep running into things I didn’t know but want to find out, so I’ll buy a book or books on it,” he said. “We don’t really specialize, although I have always been drawn to rare books or special editions.”

Kerley shared her philosophy about what kind of inventory to supply.

“I haven’t let my prejudices get in the way,” she said. “If a customer comes in and wants a book that you won’t carry, you have to send them away. That’s not the way to do business, so I try to cover a big range of interests.

“I eventually realized if I only ordered what I consider ‘good’ books, people would leave without what they want, so I order lots of the ‘bad’ books! People buy them. What can I say?”

Both store owners give much credit to their staff, whom they treat well. That undoubtedly accounts for long-term staff members.

“My success,” Kerley said, “is thanks to a great staff, 24 full-time and two part-time. Over the years I’ve learned to delegate. They help in various ways and know the inventory.”

Although Book Den is smaller, it also depends on staff, Kelley says.

“Among the four of us, we have 110 years of experience selling books,” he said. “Unlike chains, we don’t have a great turnover. My staff cares about books.”

Bottom line, however, is the customer. Everyone I spoke to pointed that out and realizes that independent sellers often cultivate the customer year after year.

As Kelley puts it, “Since we’re a local bookstore, people know us, know our staff. People often ask us, ‘What should I read next?’ Our staff can help answer that and help customers buy what they want.”

Kerley has her take on it, too.

“Above all we appreciate our customers,” she said. “Local people are willing to come in and spend full price on books. Of course with a bookstore like ours, people come in and browse. That’s how they come across books they weren’t necessarily thinking about but want to read. That doesn’t happen much on the Internet.”

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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