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Indie bookstores go electronic to survive

Under Creative Commons License from Thomas Hawk. http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/5118688233/
Under Creative Commons License from Thomas Hawk. http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/5118688233/

Who would have thought that Borders, the corporate bookselling behemoth that had stores in practically every mini mall across America, would now be shutting its doors? Some blame the Borders breakdown on the end of books as we know them. The cause? Technology.

SARAH BIERMAN: I buy books off of Amazon. Sometimes I look for books in independent bookstores or Barnes and Nobles, and they just don’t have it.

That’s Sarah Bierman in North Berkeley.

BIERMAN: I think when you’re reading a book and you’re holding it in your hand, it’s no big deal. If you drop a Kindle, it’s like $200 down the drain. But if you get used to reading a Kindle, it’s not like a screen, it’s like reading a book.

Colin Webb also digs the digital book.

COLIN WEBB: The reason I use a Kindle is because it’s not a computer screen, and that hurts my eyes so much. One of the reasons I do have a Kindle is they’re so frickin’ cheap. If it wasn’t so cheap, I would so boycott them.

Last December, Amazon sold eight million Kindles, beating even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as Amazon’s best selling product, ever.

If a chain store like Borders can’t hack it, then how do independent bookstores even have a chance? KALW’s Holly McDede takes on that question in this report.

HOLLY MCDEDE: Books have always had their share of enemies. First came the radio. Then came the television. And now, Amazon.

It’s always been tough for independent bookstores. But somehow, plenty of them have hung around. Like Green Apple Books, located in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond district. It’s been in business since 1967, adapting all along the way. Today’s Green Apple has a Facebook page, a blog, and online videos.

While that’s all nice, if not necessary, it’s no guarantee for staying open. Since 1990, half the independent bookstores in America have closed, including Bay Area classics, like Cody’s and Stacey’s, and soon, A Different Light in San Francisco. But when your survival strategy includes partnering with Google? Now there’s a recipe for success.

SPARKY: I've heard that you sell Google e-books here.

That’s Sparky ... the sock ... talking on the floor ... with a sales associate...

SPARKY: How do I buy these Google-y books? It sounds very terrifying and impossible because it involves a computer. SALES ASSOCIATE: You can read these e-books, your iPad, your smartphone, your desktop, your laptop, your Nook, or any other e-reader besides the Amazon Kindle.

In order to survive, Green Apple had to choose sides, and it went “Google-y.” That’s right, the independent bookseller now sells online books.

I met with the head of the Independent Booksellers Association of Northern California, Hut Landon, to find out what’s the difference between selling a book through Amazon, and selling a book through Google. 

HUT LANDON: Amazon wants to be the Walmart of online shopping.

In fact, Landon says, Amazon doesn’t even make a profit selling books. At least, not directly.

LANDON: And they’re not marketing books. They’re marketing furniture, and electronics and everything else. The book is the way to get you into their little family, and then they have you. It’s impossible to compete with a company that can sell so cheaply and doesn’t care about making money on that product.

Amazon hasn’t been charging a sales tax on purchases, either, making its stock extra cheap. That may change. Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a law forcing online retailers to collect sales tax on purchases made in California. Amazon is challenging the law, cutting ties with partners in the state and collecting signatures for a referendum. If the law holds, it could raise an estimated $200 million a year for California’s general fund. And it might even the competition for struggling independent bookstores. But Landon says those stores, increasingly, are already joining the online club.

LANDON: Yeah, the whole Google e-books, and e-books in general, that whole market has become a big piece of the book market. Ten to 15% is what people are saying it’s going to be. So, if you’re a bookstore and you’re not selling ebooks, you’re losing an important piece of the market that you can’t afford to lose. DORIZ MOSKOWITZ: We sell books through Amazon. I mean, at one point, that would have been like sleeping with the devil, you know what I mean? But they’re selling books and people use them.

Doriz Moskowitz owns Moe’s Bookstore in Berkeley.

MOSKOWITZ: I mean, it looks to me as if most people are more comfortable staying indoors, and they’re ordering things online instead of going places. And that has had a huge impact on who is out on the street, who’s walking around. And we actually sell books online because of that.

And, she says, it helps her reach customers who have trouble reaching her.

MOSKOWITZ: Scholars who only visit once a year, they can look at our books and see what we have. Our dealers who have galleries in Amsterdam can look at our catalogue of collectible books. And they’re expensive, unusual, rare books. They can order them, and we can send them to them. So they have, in a sense, helped us survive.

So she’s in. And so is Amy Thomas, owner of the East Bay’s Pegasus Books.

MCDEDE: How many e-books have you sold so far? AMY THOMAS: Not many, but more and more. I didn't wanna really say, “Come and buy your e-books!” when I wasn't sure all the glitches had been worked out. It's better now!

Right now independent bookstores are starting to resemble a science fiction movie. You can actually go up to the counter at Moe’s Bookstore, Pegasus, or Green Apple and say, “I would like Grapes of Wrath on my iPad, please.” Though Google e-books haven’t become commonplace yet, you might someday laugh with the sales person about how annoying it was to have to carry around a paperback book. The future is uncertain, but one thing is for sure.  Whatever comes next, independent bookstores are going to have to adapt.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Holly McDede.

Are you a defender of hard- and paperback books? Or have you abandoned the page for the screen? We want to hear your thoughts – give us a call at 415-264-7106.

This story originally aired on August 3, 2011.