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In the digital age, booksellers adapt business to stay afloat

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WHILE SOME LOCAL book sellers have been hurt by the Internet and other emerging digital technologies, Monroe Street Books owner Dick Chodkowski has expanded his business and now sells to a worldwide clientele. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s not just bricks-and-mortar bookstores — which have long faced competition from online booksellers like Amazon.com — that are in trouble these days.

Books themselves could be on the way out.

Last week’s tech buzz swirled around the Kindle DX, Amazon’s electronic reader that some technology enthusiasts predict could mean the death of the book as we know it. 

The Kindle DX is a slim wireless device that can hold up to 3,500 electronic books, periodicals and documents — and that, as the marketing material promises, lets readers download e-books anytime, anywhere, in less than 60 seconds.

Though the Kindle DX, priced at almost $500, is prohibitively expensive for many readers, the rising popularity of electronic readers and e-books begs the question: what’s going to happen to books — real books, made with ink and paper — and the booksellers who peddle them?

As local bookstores grapple with problems old and new — ranging from online competition to technological advances like the Kindle — their approaches to the rapidly changing book business have varied widely.

Some have already jumped on the bandwagon, peddling more books online than in their stores. One long-time local bookseller got out of the business entirely — and now says he’ll eventually buy a Kindle.

And others still are sticking with the status quo, confident that a certain generation of customers will always prefer bookstores and the books they carry to Web sites and electronic readers.

NEW BOOK SALES HIT HARD

Of course, technology isn’t the first major threat to local bookstores to come along in recent years.

Chico Martin, who founded and ran the Alley Beat Bookstore in Frog Hollow for 13 years, got out of the bookselling business in 2000. These days, though he still shops at used and new bookstores, he admitted he buys most of his books online.

He started the bookstore, he said, because it was something he’d always wanted to do. By the time he got out of the business, he said the Internet was starting to hurt his sales, but the first big challenge came from mega-bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble.

When Barnes and Noble moved to Burlington, Martin said, his sales dropped 10 percent in the chain’s first month.

“The Internet is really just a large inventory. It really makes every book available to you almost immediately,” Martin said. “In a way it’s the same as Borders or Barnes and Noble.”

That changes the business, he went on — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I do think that it’s positive for the consumer,” Martin said. “In addition to making the book available, it introduces more information and reduces the costs.”

He said local bookstores are caught these days in an adjustment period as they learn to compete with fast, cheap online sites. And on the upside, Martin said, bookstores still have an upper hand. He said reviews online often aren’t very informative, and can’t compare to picking up a book, leafing through it, and talking to a bookseller.

The question, he said, is whether or not the customer who comes in to check up on a book is going to put it back on the shelf and buy the same title online.

Martin said he thinks that the stores hit hardest by online business are new bookstores — and Becky Dayton, the owner of Middlebury’s Vermont Book Shop, agrees.

Dayton bought the shop four years ago, and at that time sales had already started to diminish as a result of shopping sites like Amazon.com. Sales figures went down dramatically with the advent of the site, she said, and the bookstore is hard-pressed to compete with the Web site’s prices. Sometimes, Dayton said, Amazon is able to sell hardcover books at prices even lower than what the Vermont Book Shop pays for books.

So Dayton said the bookstore tries to focus on providing a “value-added” experience when shoppers come in to browse, and place special orders on request. The store also takes orders over the phone and by e-mail, and a year and a half ago the store launched a Web site where shoppers can order books online.

But the Web site isn’t heavily used, and Dayton said the store may have to discontinue the service because of the high cost associated with the system. 

“It’s a struggle,” Dayton said. “We have to work the ‘shop locally’ angle hard.”

But taking that message to the shop’s loyal customers, she said, is “kind of like preaching to the choir.”

Instead, she’s trying to reach out to the demographic that’s embraced online shopping. She said she thinks all Middlebury businesses need to focus on educating shoppers about what keeping dollars local really means for the economy.

“It’s the ones who have gone away, and who went away a long time ago — those are the ones we need to get back,” Dayton said.

Recently, Dayton’s turned to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to promote the bookstore, in part because she sees social networking on the rise among shoppers in their 30s and 40s. The push hasn’t resulted in any increase in sales yet, but Dayton thinks in the long run it will be a good move for the business.

USED BOOKSTORES WEATHER THE STORM

Used bookstore owners reported that with online competition proving a little less fierce in their market, the outlook for used booksellers, like Monroe Street Books and Otter Creek Used Books in Middlebury, is slightly better.

At Monroe Street Books, a used bookstore on Route 7 just north of downtown Middlebury, owner Dick Chodkowski said the Web has actually been good for business in the long run.

Chodkowski and his wife, Flanzy, started their business in the garage behind their Monroe Street home in Middlebury shortly after moving to Vermont in the early 1990s.

“(The Web) wasn’t much of a competitor for us at the beginning,” Chodkowski said, and he and his wife waited for a few years before turning to the Internet to market books of their own. For a while, he explained, the business just didn’t have the volume to go online.

But by 1994 or 1995, the Chodkowskis changed their tune.

Now, in the store’s off season — anytime except late summer and early fall, when tourists flock to Middlebury — Dick Chodkowski said the bookstore does 60 to 70 percent of its business online, maybe more. That drops to about 50-50 when business picks up at the Route 7 store.

“You have to do both,” Chodkowski said, noting that his business wouldn’t be nearly the size it is currently if it weren’t for the Internet.

According to Chodkowski, the trick to succeeding online, given the enormous inventory available on the Internet, is in specializing in collectible, rare books.

But making a shift to an online catalogue is a huge commitment, Chodkowski said. Right now, Monroe Street Books has between 7,000 and 10,000 books catalogued. The store holds 80,000 volumes, and another 30,000 to 40,000 are stored separately for online retail.

“If you’re going to be serious about it, it takes a lot of manpower,” he said.

That’s manpower that Barbara Harding, the owner of Otter Creek Used Books, won’t be putting into her store. She bought the used bookstore in 2006. When she took over the store, she said she came into the business knowing that online sellers could pose a threat, but she wasn’t particularly worried.

The previous owner, she explained, didn’t even keep an inventory of the books, let alone an online catalogue.

“I have probably about 100 books online right now, which isn’t a lot,” Harding said. “I also am consciously not putting a lot of emphasis for this store online.”

That, she said, is because she sees the online market as flooded with books used and new — and she’s confident that buyers purchasing used books value the experience of seeing and judging a book’s condition for themselves.

“I’m confident that there are those of us who are the type of people who want that option of being able to go into a bookstore,” she said. “In a used bookstore particularly, it’s hit or miss.”

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

Both Harding and Chodkowski said they’re not worried yet about the Kindle. Chodkowski says he sees the technology growing more important in the future, but that when it comes to books as artifacts, technology won’t act as a substitute for the real deal.

“There’s still nothing to replace a book,” Harding said.

With her immediate focus on combating online sales, Dayton also isn’t fretting yet about electronic readers like the Kindle.

“I don’t see that there are a lot of early adopter types in Middlebury,” she said. “Certainly the e-book is on the horizon as a big threat to the printed book, but I don’t see it as a short-term issue for us. There are people who will just always read paper books. We just have to be positive.”

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