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Oct. 2, 2022

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Bookstores try to read future

Battered by prolonged recession, local booksellers use variety of strategies to keep their doors open

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A small crowd listens to a reading at Cover to Cover Books.
A small crowd listens to a reading at Cover to Cover Books. Photo Gallery

Some of Clark County’s independent booksellers are using a variety of sales strategies, from hosting in-store events to marketing on social network sites, to compete. Here is an overview of three stores:

Cover to Cover Books

o What: Carries an estimated 30,000 new and used book titles which it sells at the store and off its Web site. The shop also offers credit for trade-ins.

o Where: 1817 Main St., Vancouver.

o Sales strategy: Hosts regular author’s book-signing events, writers group meetings and poetry readings; tracks customer preferences and works to keep those titles in stock; emphasizes customer service.

Mel Sanders, store co-owner, on the satisfaction of owning a book store: “I will say that my heart is satisfied, but my wallet is not. I love what I do, but if my husband did not have a job, this would not contribute to the bottom line at home.”

o On the Web: http://www.covertocoverbooks.net.

Literary Leftovers

o What: Carries an estimated 50,000 new and used book titles and offers credit for trade-ins. The business sells a small sampling of specialty books online. Its best-sellers include works by historical fiction writers such as Vince Flynn, Lee Childe and Bernard Cornwell.

Some of Clark County's independent booksellers are using a variety of sales strategies, from hosting in-store events to marketing on social network sites, to compete. Here is an overview of three stores:

Cover to Cover Books

o What: Carries an estimated 30,000 new and used book titles which it sells at the store and off its Web site. The shop also offers credit for trade-ins.

o Where: 1817 Main St., Vancouver.

o Sales strategy: Hosts regular author's book-signing events, writers group meetings and poetry readings; tracks customer preferences and works to keep those titles in stock; emphasizes customer service.

Mel Sanders, store co-owner, on the satisfaction of owning a book store: "I will say that my heart is satisfied, but my wallet is not. I love what I do, but if my husband did not have a job, this would not contribute to the bottom line at home."

o On the Web: http://www.covertocoverbooks.net.

Literary Leftovers

o What: Carries an estimated 50,000 new and used book titles and offers credit for trade-ins. The business sells a small sampling of specialty books online. Its best-sellers include works by historical fiction writers such as Vince Flynn, Lee Childe and Bernard Cornwell.

o Where: 813 Main St., Battle Ground.

o Sales strategy: Advertises in small publications; hosts book events; focuses on personalized customer service. Steve Tommerup, store owner, on the effects of the recession on his bookstore: "People often come in and say this business ought to do well during a recession, but it has changed the whole dynamic of my business. People are bringing in way more books for trade than they are buying."

o On the Web: http://www.literaryleftovers.com.

Vintage Books

o What: Carries an estimated 500,000 new and used book titles, selling online and at the store for prices ranging from $1 to $30. The store also offers credit for trade-ins and carries a line of 20th century magazines and newspapers, along with old menus, programs and antique books.

o Where: 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.

o Sales strategy: Markets the business on social-networking sites Twitter and Facebook; belongs to two booksellers' co-ops, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the American Booksellers Association.

Becky Milner, store founder and co-owner, on hand-held reading devices: "If you're traveling, I've heard they're terrific because you can carry 17 books at once. But you can't share it with anybody. You don't actually own the book. It is just sitting out there is cyberspace."

o On the Web: http://www.vintage-books.com.

o Where: 813 Main St., Battle Ground.

o Sales strategy: Advertises in small publications; hosts book events; focuses on personalized customer service. Steve Tommerup, store owner, on the effects of the recession on his bookstore: “People often come in and say this business ought to do well during a recession, but it has changed the whole dynamic of my business. People are bringing in way more books for trade than they are buying.”

o On the Web: http://www.literaryleftovers.com.

Vintage Books

o What: Carries an estimated 500,000 new and used book titles, selling online and at the store for prices ranging from $1 to $30. The store also offers credit for trade-ins and carries a line of 20th century magazines and newspapers, along with old menus, programs and antique books.

o Where: 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.

o Sales strategy: Markets the business on social-networking sites Twitter and Facebook; belongs to two booksellers’ co-ops, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the American Booksellers Association.

Becky Milner, store founder and co-owner, on hand-held reading devices: “If you’re traveling, I’ve heard they’re terrific because you can carry 17 books at once. But you can’t share it with anybody. You don’t actually own the book. It is just sitting out there is cyberspace.”

o On the Web: http://www.vintage-books.com.

To Mel Sanders, a successful author’s event or open-mike poetry night at her downtown Vancouver bookstore is like the binding of a good book.

It holds the pages of her business together.

“They are good moneymakers for us and bring new customers into the store,” said Sanders, who has co-owned Cover to Cover Books with her husband, Mark Sanders, since 2006.

But like other locally owned independent booksellers, the Sanders’ promotional strategy of events and online marketing has not yet gone far enough to push the business over the profit line in the competitive industry, Mel Sanders said. Cover to Cover generates just enough walk-in and online sales to pay for its operating and overhead costs and break even.

“It’s been slow to turn a profit,” said Mel Sanders, who works full time in the shop, which sells mostly secondhand books, espresso drinks and some new books from a tiny storefront wedged between the City Dog Wash and Mo Jo’s Restaurant & Lounge in the Uptown Village district.

The store also lists its 30,000 titles on the Internet, a wide arena for book lovers, who now have more choices than ever for where to buy their next book. But what’s been good news for consumers hasn’t been so great for those who sell books and compete with everyone from online sites and chain bookstores to discount retailers and companies selling downloads for hand-held readers.

So far, Sanders attributed her store’s survival to her husband’s paycheck from his data processing job. But she is optimistic the business will improve with economic recovery.

“We made it through these last dark years when a lot of bookstores closed,” Mel Sanders said.

The going got even tougher for local bookstores at the height of the recession, which was marked by a sharp decline in consumer spending, according to former longtime bookseller Kol Shaver, the previous owner of Zephyr Used and Rare Books in Uptown Village.

Shaver closed the store last year and announced plans to sell his second-hand book collection at the Old Town Antique Mall in downtown Vancouver.

“The old way of doing business just didn’t work anymore,” Shaver said.

Sanders said when it comes to new books, her smaller, independent bookstore can’t compete with the volume prices at big chain superstores, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. The competition became even tougher during the holidays, when Wal-Mart and Amazon.com launched a $10 price war for new books.

That’s forced Cover to Cover to rethink its inventory strategy.

“We’re very selective” when it comes to new books,” Sanders said. “It really depends on whether we think we can sell it.”

Brave new world

Many booksellers also sense additional threats looming from new hand-held technology, such as the Nook from Barnes & Noble; Amazon’s Kindle; Sony’s Reader and Apple’s iPad, set to debut April 3. The devices could affect the next generation of customers, said Steve Tommerup, owner of Literary Leftovers in Battle Ground.

“I think (the devices) are my competitor in the sense that I don’t have the younger people coming in here with money anymore,” Tommerup said.

He said young adult readers don’t seem intimidated by the price of the hand-held electronic book readers either.

“The younger people are more technology based and they have the money to pay the initial investment,” Tommerup said. The hardware devices cost anywhere from $259 to $499. Downloadable software costs another $10 or more.

But some booksellers say it’s unimaginable the electronic devices will replace books altogether.

“If you’re traveling, I’ve heard they’re terrific because you can carry 17 books at once. But you can’t share it with anybody. You don’t actually own the book. It is just sitting out there is cyberspace,” said Becky Milner, a longtime Vancouver bookseller who founded Vintage Books in 1985.

Milner agreed independents compete with everyone from discount retailers to the supermarket with its rack of paperback best-sellers.

“You have to realize your customers do go other places. You just try to have the best selection you can, keep the inventory interesting to people and try to make it a nice buying experience for them,” said Milner, who co-owns the store at 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd. with her husband, daughter and son.

Milner said this recession has had affected her store’s sales more negatively than past economic downturns.

The tougher times weren’t just the result of competition in the book business. Sales at Vintage Books dropped 10 percent in mid-2009 when its neighboring Blockbuster store closed and fewer customers came by.

“During a down economy, you really can’t expect to make much, but Vancouver seems to have been hit harder,” Milner said.

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