Retail report: As Borders contracts, what will happen to Ann Arbor's independent bookstores?
AnnArbor.com file photo
Nicola Rooney, owner of Ann Arbor's popular and independent Nicola's Books, directed my attention recently to an ad placed by 15 San Francisco-area bookstores that are still in business in the wake of Borders' store closings.
“We’re still here!” it proclaims.
“Many naysayers seem to believe the end of bookstores is near at hand we respectfully beg to differ,” the ad reads, pointing out that customers seem to appreciate the care that independent stores take in choosing their stock, and in customer service.
Rooney and two other successful Ann Arbor bookstore owners told me recently that they share the ad's sentiment. Rooney admits that she has felt the impact of book industry changes, but says that there's still a place for independent bookstores in our community.
“Bookstores will make it through these dark ages. We certainly will,” says Bill Zirinsky, co-owner of Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in downtown Ann Arbor.
Competing with bigger and often cheaper options is one piece of the challenge facing independent stores: “It is hard to compete with Walmart and Amazon, no doubt about that. It takes focus, commitment and capital,” Zirinsky says.
And a keen business sense, Rooney adds.
Angela Cesere | AnnArbor.com
“I think our peak year was about 2002, and then it has been stable and steadily declining — in terms of sales — ever since then. In terms of profitability, I’ve gotten cleverer. We don’t do a lot of things that we used to do that were not worth doing. Sadly, very sadly, I say this, a lot of advertising, particularly with NPR — underwriting, which was very expensive, it was the right thing to do, but unfortunately not very economically justifiable. We used to advertise regularly 3 to 4 times a week in the Ann Arbor paper. We don’t do that now.”
Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s on South Fourth Avenue, sells new and used books. She says that used book sales are a key piece of her survival during winter months, particularly.
“Used books keep our doors open in the slow months and get customers in the door,” Agnew says.
The all-important niche
Beyond that, it helps to have a specialized focus. Zirinsky knows what makes Crazy Wisdom unique: “Crazy Wisdom has painstakingly built a local and regional market for itself.
"If you're interested in our core subject areas — integrative medicine and holistic health, spiritual traditions across the globe, and psychological insight — then there are very few bookstores in the country with our depth of inventory.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com file photo
"And, as body/mind/spirit bookshops go, none of them match CW for beautiful woodwork and attention to aesthetics.”
Specialty bookshops in Ann Arbor tend to have a steady following. Stores like Common Language and Our Lady of Grace Bookstore have certainly carved out a niche, catering to LGBT and Catholic readers, respectively.
Robin Agnew agrees that independent booksellers offer something special.
“The big-box stores may be on the way out and what's left may be boutique-type stores like ours, offering specialized service and collector's items like signed books. Meeting and talking to an author is a special thing and it's something that just can't be replicated.”
Nicola’s does not offer any specialty, per se, but Rooney feels that there is something her shop has over the bigger corporate companies: book people.
Rooney proudly says that Nicola’s staff, herself included, is knowledgeable and passionate about books.
“I think we added it up and we said that we have nearly 200 years’ worth of book-selling experience between 15 people,” she says.
She believes that marks the difference between an independent and a corporate-run store like Borders.
“Everyone says how wonderful Border’s used to be. There is a lot of sadness, and fondness for how it was. It used to be the kind of place where you could walk in and ask them for anything and they would know what you wanted. I think they dug their own grave unfortunately by getting rid of all the people who knew anything about books because the upper levels seemed to feel that you didn’t need to know anything about books in order to run a bookstore, and I think they’ve been proven wrong,” she says.
When asked what it takes to survive as an independent bookseller, Rooney says, “I think it’s knowing who your customers are and making sure you have what they want, and you behave to them as they would wish you to behave.”
Agnew agrees that it’s the personal service that keeps people shopping: “We can help people with very specific and personal recommendations, one of my favorite parts of my job.”
What about e-books?
Another threat to the brick-and-mortar bookstore is technology.
Rooney says she feels the threat of new technologies, but does not feel it will eradicate the bookstore industry.
“It’s stable, but yes, we’re under threat, definitely,” she says.
Rooney says she feels the competition from Internet book sales and e-book readership.
Though Nicola’s website offers both tech-friendly options, neither is a main piece of their business.
“We don’t see a place for us in the e-book business, because our customers, in general, are real book people, although you can buy e-books on our website, we are not going to promote them.”
Crazy Wisdom, on the other hand, is looking forward to offering Internet sales and e-book sales via an upgraded website beginning this summer. The store is teaming up with the American Booksellers Association to offer more online capabilities and “level the playing field a bit.”
A unique market
Despite the difficulties and industry changes, all three bookstore owners affirmed that there is just something unique about Ann Arbor that makes success more possible. Agnew helps oversee Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown BookFest every September.
Its goal is to highlight involvement in books and the printing arts in the region. The event’s yearly success shows that there are readers in Ann Arbor that make efforts to support the industry.
“I appreciate meeting a lot of the really unique and intelligent people who live here ... I'm always amazed by the things our customers do,” Agnew says.
Zirinsky explains, “In terms of our customer base, Ann Arbor has a disproportionate number of highly educated people who believe in the value of psychotherapy, who have nuanced understandings of the ingredients of day-to-day spirituality, and who place great importance on living in a conscious and healthy way. So, we can thrive in Ann Arbor to a degree that would be unimaginable in any other small city of our size in the Midwest, except perhaps for Madison, Wisconsin.”
“Ann Arbor is still a book place, but anyone who is a book person now has many more choices as to where to get a book,” Rooney adds. “If it doesn’t matter to enough people, we shouldn’t be here — we don’t have a divine right to exist. We are only here if we are providing a service that enough people want at the price that we have to charge in order to stay in business. If that equation doesn’t work, then you go out of business.”
Angela Smith is a freelance contributor to AnnArbor.com. You can contact her at email@example.com.