The Last Indies: Bookstores adapt to reader demands, technology

By Osayi Endolyn

The lights went out for good at Outwrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse in January. But a trace of the distinct humor and spirit of Midtown’s LGBT literary flagship remains. A handwritten sign posted on the front door reads: “No Bathroom. Try Amazon.”

It’s a sentiment that has no doubt spread across the nation as independent brick-and-mortar bookstores struggle to remain relevant in the wake of that oft-repeated refrain: economic uncertainty, the proliferation of e-readers and Amazon’s practically endless reach. Just weeks ago, another local gem succumbed – Decatur’s Blue Elephant Book Shop announced their impending closure in mid-March. “We are not selling enough books to sustain the business,” the website announcement stated.

Opinions vary on the future of the handheld book and based on recent reports in the New York Times, even giant retailer Barnes and Noble may falter in the coming years.

The future seems bleak for print-and-bound pages, and for those who’ve made a life out of opening stores to sell them. But that’s just the thing about spending several decades working in a field you love. It’s really hard to give it up.

Throughout Intown, many indie owners are taking varied approaches to staying afloat. They are both abandoning traditional business practices and combining them with new demands of the era. They are digging in and leaping forward. They’re in for a good fight.

Willing to Adapt

A Cappella Books called Little Five Points home for over 20 years before making the move to a smaller, less expensive location nearby. This came after they had already downsized from a shared space with now-closed Opal Gallery in 2010. Today, the general interest store is situated on Haralson Avenue just off of DeKalb Avenue, barely a mile away from its former spot.

“We have a bit less room, but everything else is still the same,” says owner Frank Reiss. “We’re kind of off the beaten path and there’s not as much foot traffic. So we’re prepared to focus on other things, too.”

Those other things include a well-established Internet business (Reiss says he’s been selling books online even before Amazon launched), and partnering with other local organizations to host author events. One of note is the Restaurant Eugene Author Dinner Series where acclaimed food writers inspire a multi-course meal. February featured Randy Fertel, author of The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir. The cost of attendance includes a copy of the book and dinner with the celebrated author. More and more, indie bookstores are finding ways to expand the solitary experience of reading to one that can be both monetized and shared.

“We’re flexible in how we see ourselves,” Reiss reasons, of A Cappella’s new chapter. “We’re willing to adapt so we can stay. I realize I might have to go out and get a real job one day.” He pauses. “But if enough people have an affection for what books represent, we can still serve a purpose. We’ll do it as long as we can.”

“I Just Want People To Read”

Jeff McCord keeps the calendar at Bound to Be Read Books full with author readings, seminars and book club meetings. Focusing mostly on used books, McCord opened in East Atlanta Village in 2005. Recently enough to see Amazon’s looming shadow, but before the financial crisis that threatened just about every business and household in the country. He says customers come in and express their concern.

“We’re hanging in there,” he says, “but it’s getting increasingly difficult.”

McCord feels his primary responsibility is to contribute to the cultural landscape – to bring people into the store and make new writers and new ideas available to them. Perhaps that’s why in 2011, Bound to Be Read was the first bookstore in Atlanta to partner with the Unchained Tour, selling tickets to the renown evening of Moth-inspired Southern storytelling. He heard about it through the Southern Independent Bookstores Alliance, which aims to support and empower indie sellers. This year the weekend event was again hosted at Manuel’s Tavern, with several other local bookstores joining up to sell seats.

Next month, McCord will venture out on behalf of World Book Night, the international event on April 23 where pre-registered participants descend on cities to hand out successful and acclaimed books to casual readers. He plans to hit up bars in the village. “I just want people to read,” McCord says smiling. “So now I’m giving books away.” But he’s still a businessman. McCord hopes to launch a lunch series in the coming months where readers can interact with authors over a brown bag. E-books are also available through the store’s website – any device that can read Google Books can download them.

Other stores continue looking for ways to cater to their niche market and capitalize where they can. Tom Schloeder of Brushstrokes, admits seeing an uptick in sales since Outwrite’s closure. But he doesn’t necessarily see that as a good thing. “It doesn’t help the community at all to have less options,” he says. “We’re doing well, but it’s not what it used to be.”

Brushstrokes has two separate shops in the same Piedmont Avenue strip mall. Sensory Overload is essentially a gift shop that also carries books. “We carry over 4,000 greeting cards, which still do really well despite email,” Schloeder says. “Books are not profitable. I can’t compete with Amazon, who is basically selling books at my cost.” A couple of doors down is the adult store Brushstrokes Pleasures. “Most of our customers are gay men, but we also see lesbian couples and straight couples. We actually get a lot of straight women because they feel comfortable here – we don’t hit on them!” The gift shop does the bigger business however, and with Outwrite’s exit Schloeder plans to increase their book stock.

Like McCord, the needs of the community are prevalent in Schloeder’s mind. For him, that means the LGBT community. “The literary concerns of the town are very important to us. It defines the culture of the town. [It] can’t be left in a void.”

Nostalgia vs. Technology

So if greeting cards are helping bookstore owners meet their bottom line, even in a niche that attracts the long-heralded spending power of the gay community, one might ask if other genres even stand a chance.

If you’re Dave Shallenberger of Decatur’s Little Shop of Stories, the answer is a modest yes. As the name might indicate, Little Shop is the state’s only independent bookstore dedicated to kids. They serve a special but broad clientele. And that clientele shows their support. “A lot of it is that books are an interactive experience with kids and their parents,” Shallenberger reasons. “I think it’s hard to share that with an e-reader. [Reading to a child] is just better in book form.”

On a recent visit to Tall Tales in Toco Hills, the scene in the store was worth noting. A teenager sat alone, comfortably skimming a textbook at a table. On the other side of the store an employee instructed an eight or nine-year-old on how to properly hold a book so as not to damage the binding. These moments, once ubiquitous across America, are quickly fading. Where will these moments happen in a society where libraries are closing alongside the indie stores? “I’m an optimist,” says owner Marlene Zeiler. “I’ve always believed there’s room for the digital book and us.”

Zeiler goes on, reminiscing about her childhood in New York. Back when a person could walk down Fifth Avenue and see multiple stores full of books. “They’re all gone now,” she sighs. “But I remember when the audiobook came out and it was all doom and gloom then. Then things shook out a bit.” Customers won’t find anything but a carefully curated selection of books in her store, open since 1979. No e-books. No extras. “I’m still recovering from converting my inventory to the computer – if I can’t do it this way anymore, I’ve decided I just won’t.”

Alex Nunan of The Book Nook has diversified his business since opening in 1973, but it hasn’t impacted the numbers. “Business has been flat for five years,” he says. The Book Nook buys, sells and trades books, comics, records and DVDs. He cites the increasing competition books are up against – streaming movies, smartphone apps, video games. That’s a lot to contend with. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” he says of the difficult climate. “We’ve been in business for 39 years. But I can’t say anything optimistic about the future of bookstores.”

Laura Keys, who is closing Blue Elephant Books after four years in Decatur, can empathize with Nunan. While she fondly calls her loyal customers “book people,” there were other customers who came in wanting advice on what to read, or what to buy for a friend. “Then they’d say something like, ‘I just got an e-reader’ and leave without purchasing anything. I never found a tactful way of saying that my time and resources shouldn’t be for free.”

People loved the convenience of downloading a book to their device but they missed the interaction with a knowledgeable professional who could cater to their needs. Warm fuzzy feelings just aren’t enough.

“I don’t know the future of the book business,” Keys says, “but to survive, a critical mass is required to keep it afloat.”

Over at Eagle Eye Bookshop in Decatur, Doug Robinson has taken a multifaceted approach to his inventory for close to six years. “We sell new and used books and really try to offer titles you won’t get in a big box store. We’ll take those unusual books — sometimes they sell right away, sometimes not. But we want to offer them.”

Robinson says a crucial part of his business has been author events. Many times, the store can get authors on the rise, before they break out big. That happened with Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. Robinson says independent bookstores pushed sales of the book, helping to make it the blockbuster it has become.

“I think it’s important that people realize [when they shop here] that they’re supporting a bookstore that enables that store to stock, promote and talk about authors you’ve never heard of.”

Community Space

Sara Luce Look of Charis Books has felt the impact of the business side, but tends to focus her attention on the communal impact. “We are invested in being a community space. We’re a feminist bookstore, by a broad definition, and we also sell multicultural children’s books. We’re a gay-owned bookstore, too, with an emphasis on lesbian, queer and trans.”

Tucked behind the Brewhouse Pub in bright purple house, Charis Books has been in Little Five Points for 38 years, yet new customers always exclaim their surprise at the store’s existence. “I like to think we’re Atlanta’s best-kept secret,” says Luce Look. “And we play an important role in the community.”

Charis participates in book fairs, sells at schools, partners with conferences in town and sells art made by local artists, too. Plans for the Charis Feminist Center (with oversight by the non-profit arm Charis Circle) are still in process but not yet imminent. For now the focus remains on books and the people who walk in and buy them.

The Future of the Future

So where will all of Keys’ “book people” go? “I hope we still run into each other,” she says. “I’ve met such interesting, smart, entertaining people. Book people are good to know. They’re interested and curious. They have an appreciation for language, for events happening in the world.” She’s quiet. “I honestly don’t know what’s next for me yet. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”

One way or another, the time is soon coming when she’ll have to think those challenging thoughts. And as hard as it may be to accept, the same plight may be true of other Intown stores if things continue as they have.

“If you like bookstores,” Nunan says matter-of-factly, “make sure you walk into them.”

Paper book fan or e-book convert, all readers should be able to agree on at least one thing: there’s nothing quite like walking into a store and browsing the inventory on the shelf. If we don’t have that, we’ll be trading in a lot for that digital convenience.

Zeiler knows her business may not last forever, but she’s not buying the rhetoric that the form will die out. Look, she says, “There’s always some crazy bookseller who’s ready to open a bookstore.”

Sign up for our emails

Enter your email and stay on top of local news!