Independent bookstores turn a new page on brick-and-mortar retailing

By , Published: December 15, 2013 – In the WASHINGTON POST

Bookstores are terminally ill. Borders? Dead. Barnes & Noble? Life support. Amazon is king. E-books are the present and the future. Have tablet, will read.

But in downtown Frederick, Md., Marlene and Tom England are defying the future: They recently opened the Curious Iguana bookstore. It carries books printed on paper. Nonfiction. Poetry. Short stories. That seems insane, right? Some people strolling by certainly think so.

The Curious Iguana bookstore owner Marlene England, left, helps out customer Kasey Smith, 23, Saturday December 14, 2013 in Frederick, Md. Recently there’s been a surprising resurgence of independent bookstores like the Curious Iguana that opened in Frederick in September. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

“I’ve heard them say: ‘A bookstore? Who would open up a bookstore these days?’ ” Marlene said. “I mean really, the door is open. I can heeaaaaaaaar you.”

Marlene has not ventured outside to offer the doomsayers a retort, but if she did, it would be this: Independent bookstores are not dead. In fact, in some of the country’s most urbane and educated communities, they are making a comeback.

In an e-tailing world, their resurgence is driven by e-book growth that has leveled off, dyed-in-the-wool print lovers who won’t (or can’t) abandon page flipping, a new category of hybrid reader (the latest mystery, digital; the latest John Irving, print) and savvy retailers such as the Englands, positioning their stores squarely in the buy-local movement and as a respite from screens.

The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores, says its membership — it hit a low of 1,600 in 2008 — has grown 6.4 percent in 2013, to 2,022. Sales were up 8 percent in 2012, and those gains have held this year. In the District, sales at Politics and Prose, where President Obamaand his daughters went Christmas shopping last month, have grown each of the past few years. Its owners pondered an additional outlet in Georgetown, but the original idea for a location fell through.

Nationally, while there are still indie bookstores shutting their doors, unable to hold on against the tough head winds, there are more stores opening than closing. Word, the popular Brooklyn indie, just opened a new branch at an old Burger King in Jersey City. Bookbug, in Kalamazoo, Mich., has doubled its size. Novelist Ann Patchett opened a store in Nashville. There are new openings in St. Louis, in Durham, N.C., and beyond.

“We just never bought into the sky-is-falling mentality,” Marlene England said. “You see the headlines, but you have to dig deep to see what’s really happening.”

The indie resurgence became publishing’s central narrative this year. Publishers Weekly, the industry’s trade bible, last month named Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, and his group’s board as its person of the year, an honor previously given to “Fifty Shades of Grey” author E.L. James and Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of, the owner of The Washington Post and a villain to indie booksellers.

“We are a lot like Mark Twain: The rumors of our death are a little bit exaggerated,” Teicher said. “We have been counted out for a very long time.”

Twenty-five years ago, independents were supposed to vanish when Waldenbooks showed up in malls. They were supposed to vanish when Borders and Barnes & Noble came along with endless selection and comfy chairs. They were supposed to vanish when Costco started selling the latest Doris Kearns Goodwin. They were supposed to vanish when Amazon perfected low prices and fast shipments — not just for books but even for rowboats, meaning nobody would ever have to leave the house again to shop.

“I think what we’re seeing is that the inevitable death of any kind of physical retailing was a gross exaggeration,” said Laura J. Miller, a Brandeis sociology professor and author of “Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption.” “There are a lot of reasons people like going to bricks-and-mortar stores, especially to bookstores that are offering something more than just a convenient shopping experience.”

The Englands’ objective when they opened the Curious Iguana was to offer something more. They are experienced in the art of throwback retailing. They own Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts, a popular downtown Frederick toy store specializing in toys without batteries. Even in the face of ­Xboxes, flying toys and children snatching their parents’ iPhones to play games, the Dancing Bear’s sales have increased every year.

“We think there’s a desire by many to go back to a very simple time,” Tom England said. “Kids are starting to play Risk again. People want to touch things. They want to be a little low-tech.”

The Englands were pondering opening another toy store in a different downtown, but they love Frederick and realized something special was happening there — a rebirth fueled by upscale food, high-end antiques and cute cafes. Their toy store’s book section was booming, so they thought of opening a kids bookstore.

But people around town pushed them to open a bookstore for general interest. They visited Politics and Prose one morning. It was packed. They saw statistics showing that indie stores’ sales were growing again. And so they took a huge gamble: They moved their toy store off the main street and around the corner, putting the Curious Iguana in its spot.

The walls are a warm purple. Edison lights hang from the ceiling. The hardwood floor creaks. And they gave the store a larger mission, too — sharing a portion of the proceeds with international nonprofit organizations. Sales, the Englands say, are higher than they expected. One recent Saturday afternoon the store was packed with about two dozen customers.

“We need intimate, small places like this that care about the books they pick,” said Lisa Solomon, a Frederick resident holding several children’s books. “This isn’t just a bookstore. It’s more than that.”

Ryan Young, 38, dropped $130 on cookbooks, kids titles and some other hardcovers. She said something that many book buyers would be afraid to utter in an indie store: “I’m an Amazon Prime member.” She also admitted to owning and enjoying a Kindle. Lightning did not strike her. That’s because she also said this: “Having a book in my hands — nothing stacks up to that.”

Young is an emerging positive for indie bookstores: a hybrid reader. About 64 percent of U.S. book buyers prefer reading in both print and digital, according to the Codex Group, which regularly surveys readers. Young reads series mysteries on her Kindle, but literary titles come home in print. Industry statistics show that e-book sales are largely tilted toward genre reading, a trend playing out in Young’s life.

“There has to be a value in both,” she said. “There are books on my bookshelves that are like my friends. You can go back to them over and over again.”

Marlene England is not offended about the remark. “It doesn’t have to be an either-or,” she said. “You don’t have to feel guilty for buying e-books. We all do it — for convenience, for travel, whatever.”

E-books, however, have not come to overwhelm bookselling as many experts predicted five years ago. Statistics from earlier this year showed that e-book saleswere up 5 percent in the first quarter, compared with 28 percent in 2012 and 159 percent in 2011.

“The growth curve really has flattened, so that’s good for us,” said Bradley Graham, a former Washington Post reporter who owns Politics and Prose with his wife, Lissa Muscatine.

But many independent bookstore owners, including Graham, concede that e-books are a big part of the industry’s future, so they are embracing the technology. In partnership with Kobo, an Amazon competitor, Politics and Prose and other independent bookstores are selling the company’s e-readers and e-books in exchange for a small cut of sales.

Graham says the partnership hasn’t yielded meaningful revenue. More promising, he said, are the store’s other ancillary offerings — daily author readings, dozens of paid classes, and book-oriented trips. The store recently added beer and wine sales for in-store events.

Still, publishing experts say that independents might be fighting for their lives again five or 10 years down the road. College students today — the book buyers of tomorrow — are finding a heavy emphasis on digital textbooks in the classroom, and there is a risk they won’t ever become hybrid book buyers.

Also, Amazon shows no sign of giving indies any relief on what store owners consider predatory pricing, especially on key titles they need to push. Donna Tartt’s new novel, “The Goldfinch,” is selling for $30 at Curious Iguana. Amazon is selling it for $15.41.

And then there’s Barnes & Noble. While the Borders demisewas good for indie sales, a Barnes & Noble collapse would be catastrophic for the publishing industry, which depends heavily on the company’s enormous bookselling footprint to move huge inventories, including bestsellers that help finance the more literary offerings that indies typically stock.

“I think the independents have been given a break for now,” said Al Greco, who studies publishing at Fordham University.

The Englands know the risks. “We knew exactly what we’re getting into,” Tom said.

And besides, Marlene said, “if it all fails, Curious Iguana is a great name for a bar.”

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