It’s tempting to call what independent bookstore owners have dealt with over the last two or three decades a wild and scary roller coaster ride. Problem is, most roller coasters are considerably less wild and scary.
Consider the monsters that the indy bookstore owner has had to stare down to survive: bigfoot discount houses like Books-A-Million, the rise of the big-box superstores Borders and Barnes & Noble, the steamroller of Amazon.com (we’ve almost forgotten that Amazon’s quest to rule the commercial world began with books), mass merchandisers like Target, Costco and Wal-Mart going after a piece of the book business, the rise of the e-book and Amazon’s Kindle, and the ongoing colonization of the American attention span by the wily smartphone.
In such a hall of horrors, it’s almost a miracle that independent booksellers are still in business at all. Call it tenacity, stubborn idealism or masochism, but somehow small bookstores are finding a way to stay open—for now.
Take, for instance, Gilroy’s BookBuyers, which opened its doors on Monterey Street in the fall of 2016. At 75, owner/operator Hotranatha Ajaya works more than 80 hours a week, as does his wife and business partner Punita. The Ajayas cannot afford to hire any employees, and they are still in the process of remodeling their store’s interior. Yes, BookBuyers does have a bookstore cat—her name is Happy, and it fits—but other than that, the stereotype of the sleepy bookstore does not apply.
BookBuyers is not a new business but a relocated one. The store started back in 1990 in Palo Alto, and for 24 years, it was a landmark on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View. An enormous jump in rent forced the closure of the Mountain View store in the spring of 2016. The Ajayas could have walked away at that point, but they instead decided to move down the valley to Gilroy. Ajaya said he loves the new space, and he really likes the community of Gilroy, but in reference to his financial straits and long hours, he says, “We can’t continue to exist like this.”
In Morgan Hill, Brad Jones can relate. Jones and his wife Cinda Meister run the community cornerstone BookSmart, now in their second year at the store’s most recent location on East Dunne Avenue after more than 20 years in downtown Morgan Hill. In March, the two announced the imminent closing of the store, but as of mid-June, BookSmart is still open, as Jones pursues one last loan request from the city.
“We’ve been trying to refinance our long-term debt for a long time, but we just haven’t been able to do it,” said Jones. He added that the store is looking for a long-term low-interest loan to deal with the store’s $200,000 debt, but he is fast running out of options. “We keep hoping that there’s a white knight around somewhere but it doesn’t seem like there is.”
Meanwhile, book lovers can also still visit Gilroy’s Barnes & Noble store at Gilroy Crossing. But times are not good at B&N, either. In its most recent earnings statement in March, the company, which operates more than 630 stores nationwide, reported a 5.3 percent decline in revenue and losses of $63.5 million.
These three bookstores have wildly different business models. Even the two independents have little in common other than books–BookSmart sells new books and BookBuyers (as the store’s title implies) traffics in used books and media. But all face uncertain futures.
The weird thing, though? Independent bookstores generally are doing well.
“The good news is that nationally, the independent bookstore community has had a bit of a resurgence,” said Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. “There are more indy bookstores out there now than there were a few years ago. In addition to the growth in the number of stores, there has been a commensurate modest growth in sales. No one’s getting rich, but people are earning a living and supporting their employees.”
Brad Jones of BookSmart acknowledges that small bookstores are doing well nationally. His store’s woes have nothing to do with national trends, he said. “This is purely a local situation with us. We had a situation where we had to move out of our other location very quickly. We didn’t get financing prior to the move and we had to do it as we went. We basically used our own personal credit cards to do it.”
He said that he is hoping that BookSmart can stay open through the end of July, so the store can participate in the annual “Where’s Waldo?” promotion to help other local businesses. “We don’t know what we will do yet,” he said. “We’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.”
In Gilroy, Hotranatha Ajaya also feels the knife edge of failure every day, but he’s also working with a best-case scenario in mind. He is convinced that Gilroy is on the brink of a boom and that BookBuyers will be well positioned to take advantage of it. Today, his bookstore carries about 300,000 titles of books (both hardcover and mass-market paperback), CDs, DVDs (including Blu-ray), calendars, cards, comic books and manga, and even vinyl LPs. But if all goes according to plan, BookBuyers will be not just a bookstore, but a “grassroots learning center.”
Ajaya is working to expand the store and build a family room with children’s books and board games. He hopes to one day be able to partner with local restaurants to have a lunch counter. And he’s also remodeling a room that he’ll use as a space for classes and seminars, mostly aimed at writers and lovers of literature. “Books are about learning,” he said. “What I’m focused on is classes for the written word. How to write better, how to publish, how to self-publish, that kind of thing. I also want to focus on some of the things that the schools don’t focus on: money management, and I’m really interested in non-violent parenting.”
To turn the bookshop into a cultural touchstone and community meeting place for writers, Ajaya is planning to convert BookBuyers into an official non-profit, which would allow him to fundraise and enlist volunteers.
Will it work? Only time will tell. But many in the book industry say that the resurgence in independent bookstores is a sign that consumers may be turning away from the atomizing and alienating aspects of online culture for something more personal and community-oriented. “In a world where, both professionally and personally, a consumer spends so much of their day interacting with technology,” said the ABA’s Teicher, “there is a yearning for an alternative, at least for some of the time. And books provide that escape in which we’re all plugged in and living our lives through some electronic device.”
These days, at BookBuyers, Ajaya seems a long way from his dream. Because he buys books from the public, and because he takes just about anything anyone brings in, he spends huge swaths of time buying books, cleaning them up, sorting them, pricing them and shelving them and so has little time to remodel his children’s room and to work on his non-profit status. He’s convinced that tomorrow will be a brighter day if he can survive today.
“I’m optimistic, but I’m practical, too,” he said. “If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t have survived this long. You just have to be willing to work on a spider web strand. I wouldn’t say ‘shoestring.’ That’s much too strong to describe the conditions we’re working under.”