Smaller bookstores find their niche as landscape changes

By Karl Henkel


As one door closes, another one opens.

Or in this case, when one bookstore closes, another one opens.

Michigan-based Borders, which recently began liquidating its 399 remaining stores — including two Mahoning Valley locations, in Niles and Hermitage, Pa. — was seen as a huge blow to the nationwide book-selling business.

Despite Borders’ struggles, it was still the No. 2 bookstore in the United States.

The closings, expected to be completed by September, will have an impact economically.

Borders has 11,000 employees nationwide, including dozens in the Valley.

The exact reason for Borders’ declination is assumed, but not exact.

Many chalk up the rise of digital media.

Tablets such as the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy have expeditiously taken over the marketplace, and along with the Amazon Kindle, offer consumers a portable, lightweight reading alternative that, because of cheaper prices for e-books, can save hundreds of dollars in the long term.

The consumer shift has been significant.

Print-book sales, with the exception of religious books, decreased during the first five months of 2011, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Adult mass-market sales fell nearly $80 million, or 30 percent, and adult paperback sales fell more than $100 million, or 18 percent.

E-book sales, however, rose $240 million, or 160 percent, but still trailed adult paperback books in total sales, $473 million to $390 million.

Andi Sporkin, vice president of communications for AAP, said that e-book sales not only have helped new-book sales, but also backlisted books.

“What publishers have found is that sales of e-books haven’t necessarily been with new titles,” she said. “There seems to be no barriers as to how long something has been available.”

In other words, the e-book network now acts as a never-ending bookshelf.

But digital books and their inexpensive prices are just one aspect of Borders’ decline. The other is independent bookstores, which, according to AAP, have remained relatively stable while their chain-retailer counterparts have seen erosion, not just in-store, but also online.

Mike Paper, vice president of Bradley’s Book Outlet, a discount bookstore that has been around for nearly two decades, said the landscape for bookstores is getting smaller.

“It’s definitely changing,” Paper said. “The chains, at one point, their size was an asset to them, but it has now become a liability. Twenty [thousand] and 30,000-square-foot stores ... they are having a hard time justifying paying for that space.”

The Pittsburgh-based bookstore, which operates eight locations in Pennsylvania and employs more than 100, this week opened up its first Ohio location at Southern Park Mall in Boardman.

It prides itself on selling books at discount prices by dealing with publishers’ overstocks.

“We’re able to mark down our books substantially from the retail price,” he said. “We’ve always been trying to be substantially cheaper than our competition. That’s our niche.”

Paper said the biggest problem isn’t the growing digital world, but fitting the industry to meet consumers’ demands.

He cited Birmingham, Ala.-based bookstore chain Books-A-Million, which last week offered to buy the leases and assets of 30 Borders stores.

Books-A-Million, which declined to comment for this story, eventually could not come to terms.

And though the chain wouldn’t have saved either of the two Mahoning Valley locations, the region boasts many stores.

There are chains such as Barnes & Noble, 381 Boardman-Poland Road in Boardman, and other, smaller chains or independent stores such as Dorian Books, which has been around for 13 years at 802 Elm St. at Madison in Youngstown, and the bookstore at Youngstown State University.

It could also be a boon for the local libraries.

“People aren’t deserting books, they’re going to e-readers,” said Janet Loew, communications director at the Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, who said book-circulation numbers are still healthy. “Digital books lead to book sales because they allow people to save pennies and find a book they actually want.”

That’s the common misconception, that books are a dying breed.

But that’s not the case, at least according to a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts study, which found that those ages 18 to 24 showed a 21-percent increase in reading in 2008.

That’s a complete turnaround from the 20-point decline documented just a decade ago.

Sporkin said that books aren’t a lost art form, but an ever-changing medium.

“What defines a book?” Sporkin said. “Downloaded audio books are books. The concept of what the definition of a book is has continued to change.”

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