Bookstores look to find their niche in internet age

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail photos
Joe Solomon recently opened Homeward Bound Books, a used bookstore located in Sullivan’s Records on Washington Street East in Charleston. He said he wants to establish more book nooks, small bookshelves with books from Homeward Bound’s inventory placed in other shops, to help keep the business afloat in an uncertain industry.
Homeward Bound Books owner Joe Solomon said many of the shop’s roughly 3,000 books are from West Virginians who have cleared out their shelves to move out of state or into a retirement community.

Joe Solomon’s goal is to find a home for every single book he comes across.

The owner of Homeward Bound Books in Charleston’s East End, Solomon said obtaining books to line the shelves of his shop in the back of Sullivan’s Records wasn’t difficult. Solomon estimates Homeward Bound has about 3,000 used books in stock.

Selling all the books being brought in has proven to be more of a challenge, according to Solomon. He said Homeward Bound gives away roughly 10 boxes of used books for free per month, and some of the store’s used books are shipped to chains outside West Virginia.

“The point is that we’re bringing a lot more used books in than we bring out,” he said.

Homeward Bound’s arrival in April comes in the wake of Amazon, e-books and a drop in print book consumption shaking up the independent bookstore business. The percentage of U.S. adults to have read a print book in the previous 12 months dropped from 71 percent in 2011 to 65 percent in 2016, according to a Pew Research Center study. The percentage of U.S. adults to have read an e-book in the same timeframe increased from 17 percent to 28 percent, the study said.

Meanwhile, the American Booksellers Association, a trade association for independent bookstores, had 5,500 members in 1995, according to a Publishers Weekly article, while in May the association counted 1,757 members.

“Many bookstores around the country open, but to survive is a whole different story,” said Jason McCrady, owner of J&M’s Used Book Store in Parkersburg.

Since McCrady’s shop opened in 2010, he said he’s seen several competitors come and go. He said some of these bookstores don’t even stay open for more than a year.

Although Homeward Bound is Solomon’s first business venture, he said he is familiar with the book industry’s challenges after creating and managing Taylor Books’ used book section for more than a year. He compares Homeward Bound to an animal shelter, saying the goal is to find a home for every book.

Solomon said a good portion of Homeward Bound’s supply comes from West Virginians who have cleared out their shelves to move out of state, or to somewhere where they need to downsize, like a retirement community.

“Part of the upside of living in an aging state is that people are getting rid of their libraries,” he said. “I’ve connected with a lot of people moving from South Hills to Edgewood [Summit], and I’ve adopted a few libraries that way.”

The profit margins are rarely glamorous for used book store owners, Solomon said, adding that Homeward Bound often feels like a nonprofit supported by his digital consulting job at arms control organization Global Zero. But Solomon said Homeward Bound is the ideal venture for him, allowing him to share his passion for books while connecting with the community.

What will keep Homeward Bound afloat in the uncertain industry, Solomon said, is its used book nooks. He expects the nooks, small bookshelves with books from Homeward Bound’s inventory placed in other shops, to become the driving force behind the business. Homeward Bound already has a nook set up at the Creature art gallery in Thomas and aims to have around 10 by the end of 2018, Solomon said. The businesses he partners with would keep a portion of whatever they sell from the nooks, he added.

“We want to bring books to towns where it wouldn’t be sustainable to set up a fully-outfitted book shop,” he said. “A cafe or even a barber shop could benefit from adding a bookshelf.”

Solomon said he’s seen book shops use similar types of models to the nook, becoming inspired by a book rack at a small cafe in Burlington, Vermont.

“I always thought the used cookbooks we have would move so much quicker if they were at a place like [Capitol Market store] The Purple Onion,” he said. “It’s really all about small businesses partnering with each other to sustain themselves.”

McCrady said he hasn’t heard of the nook concept before, but encourages independent bookstores to use an idea like the nook to help them stand out. Despite the sea change in the industry, McCrady said J&M’s sales have continued to grow. J&M’s sold more than 12,000 books from June to December 2016, according to McCrady.

“We keep on selling more and more,” he said. “I know the industry is changing, but if you run it professionally and figure out what your niche is, you can run a business well.”

J&M isn’t alone in its recent sales bump, as the American Booksellers Association says sales at independent bookstores in 2016 were up roughly 5 percent from 2015. ABA membership has also increased for the seventh consecutive year.

But Amazon is still “absolutely” a competitor for bookstores, McCrady said, with online ordering being one of its many advantages. That type of service isn’t practical for J&M, McCrady said.

“Having an online business would just cost us more man hours,” he said. “[Online ordering] wouldn’t make much sense for us unless if we absolutely knew it was something worth taking advantage of.”

Diane Creek, owner of Bank Books in Martinsburg, said her store relies on providing a personalized experience for customers. She said she understands the convenience of e-books and online ordering, but argues that the transaction lacks an experienced shopkeeper in a store where books are often curated to fit the market’s tastes.

Although Creek said she has seen her fair share of bookstores close in Martinsburg, she said business has been promising recently.

“It’s almost an act of defiance now,” Creek said of shopping in an independent bookstore. “We have good customers that come here even though there is a library nearby.”

Reach Max Garland at max.garland@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.

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