In November of 2007 Amazon introduced the Kindle. The world’s first mass-produced electronic book reader promised to do for books what the iPod had done for music. Who needs a real book when you can have the convenience of 1,000 books in your bag? E-readers seemed poised to hammer a final nail in the coffin of the several industries associated with real books. Most notably, book stores.
Six months prior to the Kindle launch, Browsers’ Bookstore owner Scott Givens bought out Albany Book Co., building and all. He more than doubled his inventory and investment in the potentially doomed industry of buying and selling used books. Givens panicked. “I had people in the publishing business, smarter than me, saying books would no longer be made in five years.”
Grass Roots Books & Music owner Jack Wolcott, however, embraced e-readers as potentially viable options for his customers. The downtown Corvallis staple decided to carry e-readers in the form of Kindle competitor Kobo. Wolcott figured it was better to sell an e-reader than turn away a customer, and allowed the buying public to support his store however they thought best.
Over the next several years, tablets and smartphones flooded the market while more and more books became available in electronic form. Borders closed its doors, along with new and used book stores in other nearby communities. But Browsers’ and Grass Roots continued to plug along. Why?
Givens found some answers after completing a study of Browsers’ sales from 2007 to 2014. Sales increased 25% on hardcover and trade paperbacks. The Corvallis location reaped the greatest benefit of that trend with 6% growth six years running. Mass market paperbacks, on the other hand, decreased in sales by about 10%. These smaller books are traditionally novels in popular mainstream genres like mystery and horror. Browsers’ variety of book styles protected them from the decline of paperback sales.
Put another way, less people bought “throwaway books” from Browsers’ because they were downloading them instead. Apparently, not all types of books are equally popular to e-reader users. People who enjoyed more substantial works continued to purchase the real thing. The overall variety of their inventory helped absorb the decreased sales in one category.
Just a few blocks away, Grass Roots continued to offer both real and electronic reading options side by side. Over time, a trend developed. Electronic book sales gradually dropped. In comparison to his overall sales, Wolcott described the sales of electronic readers as “very small and getting smaller.” Wolcott clearly saw popular fiction books as the main e-book sellers, confirming the trend found at Browsers’. “Luckily,” Wolcott added, “we never really carried bestsellers or throwaway books.”
So the dire predictions of dead bookstores missed the mark, at least here. But both store owners refused to credit a diverse inventory or a lucky trend for their continued success. Plenty of other factors have gone into the survival of these two very different brands. The most obvious advantage that a bookstore has over an electronic device is the unique experience of shopping in person. A cyber chat or FAQ page is a poor substitute for ambiance and real customer service.
At Browsers’ Bookstore, they have so much stock that there’s scarcely enough time to put it on the shelves. Both the Albany and Corvallis locations offer mazes of shelves and stacks, with few fancy displays or unnecessary decorations. The books are almost always displayed spine out, in order to accommodate the sheer volume of titles. There are rooms upon rooms of works covering every topic. The controlled chaos is intentional. Browsers’ is set up for the reader who enjoys hunting for one book, and coming away with several. It is designed for browsing. But the staff is always present to help guide the search. Givens estimates his crew of fellow book lovers spends at least one-third of their day helping customers find just what they’re looking for.
Grass Roots provides a completely different atmosphere than Browsers’. You will see plenty of book covers displayed here, along with magazines, calendars, games, puzzles, and gifts. The staff is not only familiar with the product on the shelf but also with the customer. They have to be able to make recommendations. And when they get a recommendation wrong, the customer knows where to find them. Wolcott holds himself accountable for every single book he sells, and can point to a specific reason for every title on the shelf. His staff also has the ability to order just about any book you could possibly want overnight. This allows Wolcott to have a greater variety of titles on the shelves. And they always carry the work of local artists and musicians.
That pride of community is shared by Givens as well. He pointed out that buying from Browsers’ is buying local. The vast majority of the books in stock are purchased from local residents. The majority of the money Givens earns is spent locally through payroll and other expenses. The success of his shops indicates the willingness of the people of Corvallis and Albany to support local businesses. But he also knows that his is a fragile industry. “Bookstores have been going out of business for 500 years. Prior to the invention of the Internet or e-books.”
Wolcott sees the continued existence of bookstores, both new and used, as a great sign of the overall health of a city. “I view an independent bookstore in a town like a canary in a coal mine. As long as there is a healthy, vibrant bookstore, then the community is relatively OK. But if a bookstore can’t survive, it indicates a not overall healthy environment… You won’t notice it at that time, but somewhere down the line you’re going to wonder where it went.”
You could visit www.browsersbookstore.com or www.grassrootsbookstore.com for more information. But both Scott Givens and Jack Wolcott encourage you to actually stop by for a full browsing experience. Browsers’ is at 121 NW 4th Street and Grass Roots is at 227 SW 2nd Street.