Friday, August 21, 2009
Indy Bookshops Face Tough Struggle to Survive In a Digital World
By Joseph Kellard
“Do you have any James Patterson?” a customer asked Matt Schab, owner of Lazy Days in Long Beach, last Saturday afternoon.
“I don’t think so — you’ll have to search around,” said Schab, whose independent bookstore has been looking rather disheveled since he announced it will close later this month.
Neon-colored sales signs adorn the store’s front window, and once well-stocked shelves are now much less crowded with books. Lazy Days is the latest casualty among independent booksellers that once peppered the South Shore. Just as record-and-CD stores have been done in by iTunes, book stores have been undercut by the likes of Amazon.com.
Schab, who managed the now nonexistent National Books in Kew Garden Hills before he opened Lazy Days in 2002, admitted that he knew what he was getting into even then, as online bookstores were burgeoning. Few of his early customers went online for books, but as the years passed, fewer of them browsed in his store and schools stopped coming in with reading lists. Schab said that losing half of his special-order business to Amazon.com and eBay hurt his bottom line.
“You do it because you love books,” he said of the store, which offers used books, records, VHS movies, antiques and framed artwork.
While Schab said he will dearly miss his customers, some of whom have become friends, he expressed some relief that he will be taking his books home to sell them online, on Web sites such as abe.com and half.com, while he works at the Long Beach Library and studies for a master’s in library science.
“There’s more money on the Net, and it means less hours for me and more time with my family,” said Schab, who works alone almost daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
But despite the e-book business and Google’s blossoming online library, other independent stores, new and old, are finding ways to survive. Last summer, Tim Schmidt took the 15,000 books he had stockpiled in his Oceanside home, where he ran an online business, and put them in the basement of his new store, Village Book Shoppe in Rockville Centre, where he sells new and used books.
“The business just outgrew my house, and I figured the next step to grow was maybe get a retail store and run the online stuff from the basement,” Schmidt said.
His used books — everything from Harlequin romances to histories — sell at half the retail price, and his online business allows him to have a large bargain book section upstairs, with new releases and New York Times bestsellers. “The online and retail store play off of each other,” Schmidt said. “If I have a book that’s not selling on the retail end, I’ll bring it downstairs and sell it online. If I get some cheap online book, I can bring it upstairs and offer it to retail customers at a discount.”
Schmidt’s shop replaced one called Barely Bent Books, and now his is the only bookstore left in Rockville Centre after the Odyssey Book Shop closed in January.
Meanwhile, the closest major chains are Borders in Westbury, Barnes & Noble in Carle Place and Waldenbooks in the Roosevelt Field and Green Acres malls. Schmidt said their distances work to his advantage. “A lot of the customers want to stay local,” he said. “They don’t want to drive up to the big guys at the malls.”
His closest competitor is Chapter One Books in neighboring Oceanside. Owner Arlene Toback said that while she must contend with the distant discount chain stores and Amazon.com, they are only indirect competitors. “Does it hurt you? Ultimately yes, because you’d have more traffic,” said Toback, who opened her store six years ago and sells only new books. “But do I consider that my competition? No, because people who are going to shop that way are going to shop that way. People who come in here want to get things at the moment.”
Toback said her store emphasizes customer service. She provides a one-day book-delivery service, has a reading list section for Oceanside and many neighboring school districts and parochial schools, and hires people who read and know the books her customers typically enjoy. "I want to be able to talk to my customers about the books we’re selling," said Toback. “... And getting to know your customers is a great part of it, too. It’s key.”
With established bookstores, like Booklovers Paradise in Bellmore, the allure for many customers is their old or rare volumes and their ambiance. On a recent Friday afternoon, Sarah Tamsuy of Malverne stopped in at Paradise for the first time, asked owner Amnon Tishler if he took credit cards and browsed for classic novels that are on her college reading list for next semester. She walked carefully around the shop, which overflows with 50,000 books, many of them stacked waist-high on the floor. “I kind of like this atmosphere,” Tamsuy said. “I feel like there’s more to find and you can spend all day here.”
Tishler, who opened Paradise in 1990, said his store stays afloat because it is the only one of its kind for miles around, especially now, with the demise of Odyssey Books and Lazy Days. “I own the store now — I don’t pay rent,” Tishler added. “My daughter is out of college; I don’t need tons of money to make a living anymore. But for a young person to open a retail used, rare bookstore, it’s almost impossible.”
Like Lazy Days, Tishler’s walk-in business has shrunk dramatically, since virtually all the books in his store can be found for much less online. Many customers are looking for sports books, and military and history books about World War II and the Civil War are also big sellers. Half his sales now are through abe.com.
Tishler started his online business in 1998. “I kind of saw the writing on the wall,” he said. He competes online by providing precise descriptions of his books, including the number of pages and their conditions, which outlets like Amazon.com often lack. “But there are still people who like to look and touch and smell the book before they buy,” he said.
While he is sad about the decline of the used bookstore, Tishler has resigned himself to the online world. “You have to go with the flow and the changing times,” he said.