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Hard times for hard copies? It depends

Local bookstores learn to cope with new tech trends

October 22, 2011
By CHRIS MORRIS - Staff Writer (cmorris@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

In the world of books, the narrative is shifting dramatically.

Every day, millions of Americans are making the switch to electronic readers - e-readers - to consume everything from crime fiction and cookbooks to celebrity memoirs and children's books.

And while products like Amazon's Kindle, Apple's iPad and Barnes & Noble's Nook open doors, these new technologies also hurt traditional booksellers, from local mom-and-pop shops like those in the Adirondacks all the way to juggernauts of the industry like Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders.

Article Photos

Tracy Santagate sits among stacks of used books inside her shop, Books and Baskets, on Olive Street in Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)

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Rapid growth

A Harris Poll of some 2,180 adults, released in September, sums up the popularity of e-readers concisely: One in six Americans now uses an electronic reading device, up from less than one in 10 in 2010. The poll also found that 15 percent of non-users plan to purchase an e-reader in the next six months.

Fact Box

By the numbers

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15% of Americans currently use an e-reader

15% of Americans who do not currently own an e-reader plan to purchase one in the next six months

17% of e-reader users bought or downloaded at least 11 books in the past year

17% of e-reader users bought or downloaded more than 21 books in the past year

10% of non-e-reader users bought at least 11 books in the past year

9% of non-e-reader users bought more than 21 books in the past year

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(Source: September 2011 Harris Poll)

At the Radio Shack store on Lake Flower Avenue in Saranac Lake, Manager Bill McClusky said the trend isn't going away anytime soon.

"In the last six months, e-readers have been very popular," he said. "We're constantly running out of the Kindle."

While young people are more drawn to many electronic devices, e-readers have been especially popular with the 50-plus crowd, according to McClusky.

"Mothers, older people - they're convenient, and they can be easier to read because you can increase the font size," McClusky explained.

McClusky, an avid science fiction fan, said he bought a Kindle before Radio Shack started stocking them.

"I'm a tech junkie," he said. "But to use these, you just need to know the basics. They're not going away."

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Convenience, cost

Meghan Zander of Saranac Lake wasn't impressed when e-readers first hit the market.

"I didn't really want one for a long time, because I thought it was silly," she said. "I figured I could just get books and read those."

That was before her husband, Jon (also a self-described tech junkie), gave her a Kindle as a gift. Now she says the device has allowed her to read more books, more often.

Zander has two young children, and she said the Kindle has made trips to the doctor's office, or daily routines like feeding the kids, more enjoyable.

"I can't hold a book while I'm feeding the baby, but with this, I can, because you just have to push the button to turn the page; you don't have to hold it open," she said. "It sounds silly, but it helps me to read a lot more because I can do other things while I'm using it."

The September Harris Poll, the same one that shows a rapid increase in the number of e-reader users, also shows that 36 percent of those polled are reading more because of the new technology. That's been the case for Zander.

"In the last few months, I've read four or five books, which is more than I read all year," she said, noting that those books were part of a larger series. She says purchasing those books in hard copy would have cost her more money, and finding them locally or ordering them online would have taken longer.

With her Kindle, she can download the text instantly, and often at a cheaper price.

But Zander said the Kindle can't replace the tactile quality of a good book. She also said she'll keep buying children's books in hard copy.

And like many avid readers, she said she just likes having books around the house.

"I'll always love books," Zander said. "I like having them on the shelf. It's just that the Kindle is so convenient and quick."

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Local impact

The growing popularity of e-readers is worrisome for local bookstores, but Marc Galvin, co-owner of the Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, said his business is learning to adapt.

"We designed a new website that enables us to sell both physical books and Google eBooks online," he said. "We feel we should be able to get the right book in our customers' hands, no matter how they prefer to read."

Galvin and his wife, Sarah, took over the popular Main Street book shop from Sarah's parents, Nancy and Chris Beattie, in 2007. The business first opened in 1973, and it's been at its current location since 1978.

Galvin said they've seen some of their best customers switch over to e-readers from physical books, triggering a small drop in book sales.

But Galvin said he believes the large, worldwide corporations - like Borders, which declared bankruptcy this summer and closed hundreds of stores nationwide - have suffered more at the hands of shifting consumer trends.

"People come to our store for our knowledge and because of our involvement in the community," he said. "Even our customers with e-readers still shop with us, buying gifts, children's books, local interest (books), etc. Most people with e-readers are voracious readers and read print books as well."

Galvin said some basic business know-how goes a long way when competing with the technological whims of Americans.

"We know that folks can find products we carry in a variety of places," he said. "We focus on customer service. We also work really hard on buying to make sure we have a great selection in our store as well. We read a ton of books and go through numerous catalogues to make sure the store is well stocked."

According to Galvin, events like author signings and story time for children keep people engaged with the store, whether they're buying or not.

Of course, Lake Placid's steady stream of tourists with open wallets is good for business, too. Donna and Randy Jones, who own the Off the Beaten Path Bookstore on Lake Street in Tupper Lake, aren't so lucky.

The Joneses opened their bookstore, which specializes mostly in used books and collector's items, four years ago. Jones said they were doing relatively well until the recession hit.

E-readers, along with the economic downturn, have hurt business, he said.

"I've had to find another job; we're open whenever we're here," Jones said. "Three years ago, we couldn't keep Adirondack books on the shelf. Now, there's been a tremendous drop."

But Jones said a stagnant economy in Tupper Lake has also presented challenges. He said the proposed Adirondack Club and Resort could inject new life into his business.

"I think the Adirondack Club and Resort could quadruple or triple our business; I really do," he said.

Jones said used bookstores have a certain advantage over shops that sell only new books and bestsellers, especially when competing with e-readers.

"You can't collect a first edition, signed book on Kindle," he said. "There's people that just collect; you're not going to lose them, no matter what."

Off the Beaten Path has something else going for it, too. Jones said he and his wife didn't open the store to make a lot of money. They did it because they love books.

"The people we've been able to meet have been worth it to me, and I'd keep it going just because of that," Jones said.

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Loyalty, community

Nestled among stacks of historical fiction, short story collections and young adult novels, Tracy Santagate tried to describe what it is about books she loves so much.

"The way they feel, the way they smell ... Kindle, iPads - they just can't replace a good book," said Santagate, who owns Books and Baskets on Olive Street in Saranac Lake.

Santagate opened her bookstore nearly eight years ago. She said business over that period has been good - really good - and she's not concerned about the ever-changing landscape of books and technology.

"I have a simple business plan," Santagate said. "I build from the individual up, bit by bit. I reach out to them personally, by email, when I see a book I know they'll like. I talk to them; I know them, and they know me."

Small, local bookstores offer that personal touch that online shopping and e-books lack, Santagate said.

"It's foolish to bemoan progress, but they don't compare to going into the store and asking, 'What's a good book?'" she said.

Santagate said that as long as small business owners continue holding onto those close, personal connections with their customers, new technology and hard copies can continue to mesh.

"People who love to read, truly love to read, will read in any format," she said.

 
 

 

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