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Home for Bookworms

How Boise's local booksellers fight, succumb to trends

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Several weeks ago, a friend with whom I regularly trade book recommendations asked me, for the third time in as many weeks, if I'd purchased the book he'd most recently suggested. I hadn't. I said I'd just not had the fortitude to brave the mall-area traffic to get to the bookstores, and my last experience with an online book purchase left me missing both my money and a book.

I asked my friend which local store he thought might carry the book.

Standing in a family-owned, North End neighborhood restaurant, we both fell silent for a moment considering the local options. Self-proclaimed serious readers—and by default, serious book buyers—we concluded in seconds that perhaps the title may not be big-name enough for a small indie bookseller.

A few days later, he gifted me a copy of the book. I didn't ask where he bought it, but over the following weeks, I found myself telling other bookworm friends about the conversation he and I'd had. Frankly, I was embarrassed.

I own hundreds of books. I buy them at garage sales; I ask for almost nothing but books for every birthday; I even steal them from book "trade" shelves. I'm the kind of reader who reads entire novels in one sitting while three more books lay splayed open on the coffee table in mid-read. In fact, if I could only take five things out of my burning house, three would be books: an obscure little small-run book I read in high school, the Bible my late grandmother engraved my name upon, and the tattered and scribbled-in copy of War and Peace I lugged around while backpacking Southeast Asia. Having filled up every shelf in my house with volumes, I've devised a vertical system from the floor up the wall. They're just stacks of books on the floor. But, propped up on a decorative rock or column, it at least looks intentional.

So, yes, embarrassed. I lecture friends about the importance of shopping local, bragging about how I'm willing to go out of my way or even spend extra money to put my dollars into the small-business economy. But while a peek in my house is evidence that I spend gobs of money on books, after almost a decade in Boise, I hadn't patronized a single local, independently owned bookstore.

My earliest memories of book buying all take place in mall chain stores. This was in the '80s, when—despite snuffing out thousands of indies in the late '70s with their large numbers—Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers were about to falter before a growing number of new indies. In 1981, Waldenbooks became the first bookstore in the country to have locations in all 50 states, while B. Dalton was the largest hardcover bookseller in the country. Within a decade, however, both financially flailing companies were absorbed by what were, at the time, much smaller companies. These companies eventually became Borders Books and Music and Barnes & Noble Booksellers, the giants in the U.S. bookselling market.

Waldenbooks and B. Dalton were victims of a sort of coup.

According to Rebel Bookseller author Andrew Laties, the chain stores were taken down by their own employees. After receiving training in the business, employees devised better ways of competing and quit the chains to start their own bookstores. Laties and his wife Chris both worked for B. Dalton before opening up The Children's Bookstore in Chicago, one of the city's most successful indies.

By the late '80s, membership in the industry's leading trade organization for independent bookstores, the American Bookseller's Association, swelled to more than 4,000 members, sometimes adding as many as 500 new members a year. According to Meg Smith, spokeswoman for the ABA, the organization's membership numbers peaked at 4,700 in 1993. This was a time when, according to Laties, the ABA as an organization rallied its members into solidarity, equipping them with the tools to be successful business owners. It was also during this time that the ABA sued a slew of large publishing houses for giving price breaks to chains that they weren't giving to the indies. The ABA won, thereby ensuring that Borders, Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart weren't getting books any cheaper than the unchained stores.

Despite the suit and the large number of independents in operation in the early '90s, the market-share pendulum began arcing back toward the chains.

Ironically, the big-box chains we have now grew out of successful independents. In 1987, an indie bookseller out of New York City named Leonard Riggio bought B. Dalton's 797 struggling stores, making Riggio's company—Barnes & Noble—the second-largest bookseller in the nation. Waldenbooks went on to become a subsidiary of Borders, a company that grew from a single, independent bookstore started by brothers Tom and Luis Borders in Ann Arbor, Mich.

It wasn't long before Borders and Barnes & Noble started competing fiercely head-to-head, and history repeated itself. Indies were once again caught in the competition crossfire, and ABA's membership dwindled to half of what it had been a few years prior.

Here in Boise, the number of independent bookstores has displayed similar highs and lows. In the '70s, only a handful were around. By the '90s, both Waldenbooks and B. Dalton operated in Boise, but the city also supported more than a half-dozen indies. Over the years, almost all of those have closed their doors. Today, the number of unchained, locally owned bookstores selling new books across genres (that is, those booksellers who aren't filling a niche, like Christian literature) is three. And we're about to lose one.

Boise Book and Gift Co. on Main Street is nearing the end of about three years in existence, although the location has long been a bookstore. A few weeks ago I noticed a sign in the bookstore's window advertising the retail space for lease. Although requests for comment for this story weren't returned by the store's owner, Jim Long, an employee confirmed that the business is for sale.

Once upon a time, the location was home to Main Street's beloved Book Shop, run by Jean Wilson. Until its demise in 2000, The Book Shop wasn't just Boise's oldest purveyor of books. After 136 years in business, it was one of only 14 businesses in the country that had been open for more than a century.

Today, Vista Book Gallery is the longest-running indie in Boise after opening in 1976. For a time after The Book Shop closed, it was Boise's only indie. Had it not been for the opening of Rediscovered Bookshop on Overland in 2006, Vista Book Gallery could've been Boise's only indie yet again.

Meg Smith, spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association, says the tug of war for market share in the book world can't be simplified as simply chain versus independent.

"It's not an argument necessarily that bookselling has become corporate and chainlike," she says. "Rather, it's become ubiquitous." Only 45 percent of books are sold in traditional bookstores, she says. The remaining majority are put into consumers' hands at coffeeshops, hardware stores, supermarkets and over the Internet.

In Boise, Vista Book Gallery, Rediscovered Bookshop, Boise Book and Gift Co. and religious bookseller Deseret Book are all ABA members.

According to Smith, what's happened over the last two or three decades in bookselling across the country is irrelevant to the now. Yes, the ABA has seen years of steady decline in its membership, says Smith, but that's not the case right now.

"In the last three years, 300 new stores have opened and joined our association," says Smith. "It's not because more people are interested in becoming independent booksellers, but because customers are interested in having these bookstores in their community."

She says the upswing in the indie book market is the result of a larger trend in consumer behavior: getting back to local. A 2002 study pitted local merchants in Austin, Texas, against chains to determine their economic impact; the study found that for every $100 consumers spend in chains, $13 goes back into the local community, but that number more than triples for locally owned businesses.

Smith says it's old news that the arrival of a Barnes & Noble often means a local store closes. She adds that stores close all the time as a result of many factors, including real estate values, profit margins, poor management, owners who want to retire and—only sometimes—corporate competition.

"Many of the stores that went out of business across the country had gone most of the way to insolvency themselves, and then the big stores provided that final push," says Bruce DeLaney, who, together with his wife Laura, owns Rediscovered Bookshop. The trick to running a successful independent bookstore, according to DeLaney, is to treat it as a serious business, not as a hobby to pursue during retirement.

Bruce and Laura DeLaney, owners of Rediscovered Bookshop - FRANCIS DELAPENA

Whatever the reason a local business falters, Smith says it's at the behest of the consumer.

"Retail responds to changes in society, in changes to consumer behavior," she says. The more a community shops at a chain, the more chains it'll have. Shop local, get local.

However, whether a big-box store sells TVs, lumber or books, it does have some inherent advantages over the local competition. With sprawling square footage, chains can offer a large quantity of goods, and with that comes the assumption that the inventory is also more varied.

At least that's the argument offered up by defenders of big-box bookstores. Indie supporters counter that while there may be more books, the depth of the inventory is shallow, offering only one or two titles for key authors rather than entire bodies of work.

Regardless of how many shelves and how many books an indie can or cannot carry, what's important, says Smith, is for the store to play up its strengths.

Everyone has heard some version of a story in which the clerk at a chain hasn't heard of Thoreau or can't spell Kafka. One day in Rediscovered, I eavesdropped on a conversation between a customer and a clerk. The customer had walked in and, without looking at the shelves, explained to the clerk that she'd just finished reading a memoir that she loved and she'd like to purchase something similar. The clerk knew exactly what book she was referring to, asked what she liked about it, and offered up a stack of possible choices.

"Everyone here loves books, or they would not work at a bookstore," says DeLaney.

I moved to Boise about the time The Book Shop closed, and I never had the privilege of knowing Jean Wilson. Those who did know Wilson say her death and the closure of The Book Shop left a void in Boise's literary community.

"First of all, she had a national reputation," says Cort Conley, director of literature for the Idaho Commission on the Arts. Conley was one of Wilson's regular customers and remembers her with a fondness imbued with respect.

"There's really no one at a local bookstore level that has been able to take her place," he says. "Jean was always willing to take a manuscript home and read it and make suggestions. And they were astute and valuable." In addition to offering local writers advice on their work, Wilson had national publishing connections, providing a vital link between Boise writers and the East Coast publishing establishment. Once Idaho authors published, Wilson never failed to promote local work, hosting book signings and readings.

Boise Book and Gift—which, for the time being, occupies The Book Shop's former location—does offer a sizable inventory of Idaho writers. At a display near the front door, Idaho writer Gene Perkins and Boise State professor Kevin Kiely share shelf space with William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. Vista Book Gallery also has a large selection of Idaho-grown material, and on the store's Web site, work from local writers features prominently.

Rediscovered, however, may be the closest to filling the big shoes left empty by The Book Shop. Among the owners of Boise's independents, the DeLaneys are the most involved in supporting local writers and have also been the most forthcoming about the challenges indies face daily. DeLaney has heard people tell him how much his store reminds them of The Book Shop. The DeLaneys are virtually the only independent store hosting book signings and readings for Idaho writers. They also offer space for writers' groups to meet in an effort to coalesce local writers—who can often feel marooned this far west of publishing's Manhattan epicenter—into a collective with a presence and a pulse.

Diane Leaverton, who's owned Vista Book Gallery since 1991, is reticent to talk about her business at all. She chalks up whatever difficulties she faces as the reality of being a small-business owner in any market—books, sporting goods or food service. Bruce DeLaney's approach to bookselling has more conviction behind it.

"Boise needs independent bookstores," says DeLaney. "If just 10 percent of the people who shop at the big stores switch to shopping at independents, it would support two or three more stores our size." He says the most difficult thing for him is driving by the chain stores and seeing a full parking lot. "Each of those cars represents a customer waiting to discover us."

At one of Rediscovered's most recent book signings, local mystery writer Angela Abderhalden was able to sell almost 50 copies of her new book the day it was released. Rediscovered is the only local bookstore carrying Abderhalden's book, although she did approach at least one of the big boxes.

"I have spoken with the local Barnes & Noble, but [the manager] will not carry the book on her shelf," says Abderhalden. Abderhalden says the big box stores are supportive of local writers only if they happen to be with one of the nation's large publishing houses, like Joanne Pence or Robin Lee Hatcher.

"They don't really support local authors who are with small presses because they can't guarantee that they're going to sell," she says. "The books are non-returnable with a small press, as opposed to the big guys that take books back."

The practice of remitting unsold books to their publisher for credit is what some in the bookselling business feel is a major fault in the system. It's allowed chain stores to purchase books on credit, allowing them to use their financial resources to expand quickly. The cost of doing business this way has been passed onto the consumer, leading to a significant increase in the suggested retail price of books.

The practice has also been detrimental to writers. Publishing houses are forced to find material that will sell quickly in high volume, rather than seeking out high-quality literature that's likely far less marketable. Things trickle down from there.

"It's the worst-kept secret in the book business that the large stores decide what goes onto displays based on what publishers will pay them to put on the displays," says DeLaney. In other words, publishers print what's most marketable rather than what's most worthy, and then they pay the big stores to give that material the most prominent placing in the store.

At an independent store, you're likely to get a more sincere recommendation from an end cap or center display toting the store's highlights.

"We put things on displays because we like the book, feel it is worth reading or otherwise believe that it is worth notice," says DeLaney. "Not because someone paid us to."

Some say the chains' disregard of noteworthy local work extends beyond their shelves. One source for this story complained that Barnes & Noble refused to post a bill about poet Richard Shelton's recent appearance because although Shelton is an Idaho-grown poet of national fame, he wasn't brought to town by Barnes & Noble and, therefore, the store wouldn't promote the event.

Lynn Emmet, the manager at Boise's Barnes & Noble says she wasn't aware of the situation. Emmet says the store's policy regarding local writers isn't set in stone. They're dealt with one by one, depending on the situation.

"We're not cut and dry," she says. "Right now, I'm looking at a sign for an event with Boise Contemporary Theater with Maria Headley. We've had Janet Thompson here. We had Sheryl Garrett here. We had the Idaho Magazine here. We do quite a bit."

But for some local writers, "quite a bit" isn't quite enough.

"Local writers benefit by having places to sell their works," says DeLaney. "Getting into a chain store is next to impossible for a new, local author."

And that's exactly why Abderhalden likes independent bookstores.

"They're not like corporate America, where because they're so big, they have to follow corporate rules. The independents can take a chance. Laura and Bruce supported me, and in doing so, they took a chance."

The day I was at Rediscovered Bookshop eavesdropping on the interaction between the memoir customer and the clerk, I also inquired about the book my friend had recommended to me. It wasn't a title the guy helping me recognized immediately. He punched a few keys on his computer and after two very long seconds pronounced that indeed, there was one copy in the store. He walked across the room and plucked the book off a shelf like he'd known where it was the whole time.

He read the title as he handed me the book. "A Fine Balance. Here you go."