Local bookstores continue to rewrite the book on how to compete with online giants
Online booksellers like behemoth Amazon triggered the downfall of big bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Locally owned, independent bookstores feel the crunch, too. But they are adapting and carving out a niche in the Grand Valley as much more than repositories for reading material.
Three such shops on Grand Junction’s Main Street, another on North Avenue and the newest indie — Lithic Bookstore and Gallery, which opened in Fruita in 2015 — are holding their own by doing something Amazon can’t: serve as community gathering places.
They are places where customers attend special events such as author book signings, poetry readings, occasional live music performances, talks on a variety of topics and book club meetings.
In the beginning, poetry and books about science made up the “backbone” of Lithic’s inventory, said owner Danny Rosen, a poet who worked previously as a geologist and astronomer. Lithic also carries local, regional, natural history and children’s books, as well as various fiction and nonfiction prose.
Located upstairs in the historic former First Bank of Fruita building, 138 South Park Square, the artistic shop reflects the passion both Rosen and store manager Kyle Harvey have for “great books.”
“The service I offer is the selection that Kyle and I curated,” Rosen said.
Lithic Bookstore grew out of Lithic Press, which Rosen originally founded to publish poetry. In fact, he was looking for office space for his publishing enterprise when he discovered the 1904 Fruita building.
“It kind of looked like a bookstore,” Rosen said.
The longest standing of the bunch of local bookstores, Crystal Books and Gifts, 439 Main St., will celebrate its 30th anniversary in October.
Owner Cheryl Lucas said she doesn’t consider the other Main Street bookstores as competitors because she sees each shop as having its own niche. Crystal Books is known as a “body-mind-spirit” bookstore.
Online booksellers, however, have negatively affected her business, she said.
“Amazon is huge because they have such a monopoly on everything. Plus, they don’t have to pay property taxes, (and don’t have to charge) sales tax,” Lucas said. “And they sell below cost because they have the power and clout to dictate a percentage of what they will pay to the publisher.”
Lucas said she’s adapted by adding more gift-type items — cards, candles, jewelry and wind chimes, for example. The other shops sell artwork and other items as well.
“For every $100 spent at a small, independent shop, $68 stays in the community,” whereas online purchases bring in zero money to the Grand Valley, Lucas said.
Margie Wilson, owner of Grand Valley Books at 350 Main St., said she also feels the impact of online competition. The shop sells both used and new books, best-sellers by contemporary authors, and a mix of topical nonfiction. Wilson accepts gently used books in exchange for discounts on other used books.
In addition to hosting various author events, Grand Valley Books has partnered with nonprofit organizations like Mesa Land Trust, Catholic Outreach and the Grand Junction Symphony by hosting events that end up garnering donations for the groups.
“It gives people a sense of community,” Wilson said. “And it’s enriching for us. It draws people who might not know about us.”
Additionally, said Wilson’s husband, Frank Cooley, who runs Twice Upon a Time Bookshop, a used bookstore at 2885 North Ave., Unit B, “we supply paperback books to the jail library, and the VA hospital.”
There has been a resurgence of indie bookstores across the country despite “fierce” competition from online booksellers, said Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, a nonprofit trade organization founded in 1900.
Independent shops’ book sales in the U.S. in 2012 grew nearly 8 percent over the previous year, according to the ABA. Independent bookstores held onto most of those gains in 2013, and sales have increased every year since.
It’s a model that works, Teicher said, because people are choosing to support the local jobs that indie stores create, and people appreciate the cultural contributions — the unique flair independent, locally owned shops add to a community.
Additionally, “people want to browse,” Teicher said. “People discover books in brick-and-mortar stores — as well as libraries. When you browse you’re going to discover books you wouldn’t have known about.”
That’s certainly true for Main Street’s newest bookstore — Out West Books, 533 Main St., which opened in 2014.
“Every single day I have people who come in and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m looking for,’” owner Marya Johnston said. “We ask, ‘What do you like?’ We give suggestions. That doesn’t happen on the internet. There’s no substitute for great customer service.”
Western and natural history, as well as Western literature, are her best-selling genres, followed by children’s books, Johnston said.
“Most people who shop here have a mindset of supporting local,” Johnston said. “Plus, we have a lot of local history and natural history that you can’t get online or in an e-book.”
Rosen adds, “It’s almost a political act to open an indie bookstore. I opened up a reading place. The rise of fake news comes from a lack of critical thinking. Reading engenders critical thinking, especially reading great books.”