Survival of the Lit-est

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For those hoisting metaphorical “End Is Nigh” signs near their local indie bookstores, 2011’s been positively Revelations-worthy: In Baltimore alone, local clearinghouse Daedelus Books dropped its Belvedere Square location after five years and Borders, the long-suffering and debt-ridden Pepsi to Barnes & Noble’s dominating Coke, liquidated; its Timonium location will close by the end of September.  Factor in the ebook market, rife with shiny Amazon Kindles and smartphones, and it’s all enough to drive a small bookseller into full-blown panic. 
Or, at the very least, to defensive irony.

“The commercials for the Kindle crack me up,” says Normal’s Books and Records owner Rupert Wondolowski, who opened the store with a crowd of artist and writer friends in 1990.  Faced with the threat of technology, he did what any artist-by-night might do: He leaned on satire, pasting “anti-Kindle” propaganda around the store and having a themed sale every Friday. “‘No glare!  It’s so light!’  A used book’s not putting up much of a glare.  And how many weaklings can’t pick up a paperback?”

Of course, among local indies the Kindle features more as a scapegoat–used books are still “way cheaper than the Kindle versions,” Wondolowski points out, and The Baltimore Sun’s Jay Hancock documented booksellers’ sheepish backpedaling from the Kindle-borne e-book scare just last week.  “Even back in 1982, when I started in used books, people were saying the computer was going to screw us,” Wondolowski says.  More pressing?  “There’s also the complete collapse of the global economy.  It’s not so bad yet. You’ll know things are rough when we’re having a 50 percent sale.”

Still, all that tech upheaval provides a tidy symbol for the hostile environment facing bookstores of late.  While some locals–The Ivy Bookshop and Hunt Valley’s Greetings & Readings both spring to mind–are managing to thrive via niche followings, peoples’ reading habits are slowly changing and, clever sales aside, much of the local market has taken some drastic measures to stay in the black.  On Normal’s 21st birthday, for example, the store received an uneasy gift of charity: a benefit concert at the Golden West restaurant via a number of its musician regulars.  (“It was a nice cash infusion for the slow summer months,” Wondolowski admits.)  And Ukazoo Books, a new and used store in Towson, took the 50 percent sale concept as a challenge, loss-leading its way to the bank this June by selling books as low as $1.49 a pop.  But manager Edward Whitfill, who came up with the idea, spins these counterintuitive sales events as a sort of business Darwinism.

“People bought books to give away,” he says of his sale.  “At this point, we’re an instant gratification society.  Will there be room for everybody?  No.  But [Borders’ closing] is probably doing a correction in the size of the market.  They had a lot of debt.  You can blame new technology, but when you’re servicing debt, you can’t explore new stuff.”

Ukazoo, which opened a storefront in 2007 when its owners’ online bookselling service became too big to be legal, has reason to look at marketing innovation as adaptability.  But other locals are more circumspect.  In Hancock’s Sun article, Atomic Books co-owner Benn Ray notes that Borders’ closing is “in nobody’s interest,” citing “repercussions” that may include publishers printing even smaller runs of their quirkier, more under the radar work–for many indie bookstores, the lifeblood of the business.  And Michael Cantor, who founded Salamander Books in the late 1990s and relocated the shop from Hampden to Mount Vernon last year, goes even further, suggesting his livelihood is up against a more permanent change in the culture.

“Books aren’t the go-to for the lay public anymore,” he says.  “ You used to get on the train and there would be a book in 75 percent of the peoples’ hands.  Now they have laptops.  It connects their brains in a similar way, but there’s nothing residual afterwards. You can always press the button or flip the switch.  That’s very attractive.”

Cantor hesitates to dismiss the web out of hand, though.  “Something like Borders’ closing was about the economy,” he says.  “How much does it cost to air-condition a place like that?”  By comparison, he points to the small used business’s many options, including online marketplaces like Amazon.com and ABE Books.  Both have become secret weapons for Salamander and its cohort–places where they can defray dry spells and peddle their wares.  But when asked about long-term survival, he still leans towards community presence.

“At this point, I see the book business not necessarily making the money I need to get by,” Cantor says.  “But it’s not worth ditching it. People want to go to places where they have a connection with the people running them.  Those who think and create are always in search of other individuals.”

It’s a position shared by Wondolowski.

“These are definitely frightening times,” he says.  “But lately I’ve been having a lot of nice, emotional conversations with people who love bookstores.  They may die out for a while, but then where do you go when you’re not on your computer?  The pendulum will swing back.”



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