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Books Mon Jan 30 2012

The Death of the Bookstore as Destination?

Barbara's Bookstore, a long-standing institution in the Chicago literary landscape, recently shut down another store — this time, it lost its UIC location on Sunday, Jan. 8. This comes on the heels, most recently, of closing their store in Oak Park, and previously the location in Old Town. If you want to visit a Barbara's now, you'd better head for the airport - or a hospital or department store. All this seems to have led Chicago writer Robert Duffer to reluctantly note that "it seems like the bookstore as a destination in Chicago is becoming an endangered species."

Really? Curious what those on the front lines of the Chicago bookstore business thought, I made a few inquiries.

"The closure of any bookstore in the country is a sad event, but Unabridged Bookstore is as alive and vibrant as ever," reported Stefan Moorehead, Unabridged's manager and buyer. "The bookstore as destination has not changed. If anything it has only grown since the demise of Borders."

Moorehead isn't the only one who sees the Borders bankruptcy as an opportunity for indies. Tanner McSwain, who recently opened Logan Square's new Uncharted Books, insists independent bookstores "are a hell of a long way from extinct...What I see as endangered, for better or worse, are the large chain stores that provide massive selections of new, pricy titles in direct competition with Amazon. I see indie bookstores are adapting to smaller, more localized, more curated business models."

And when it comes to the fate of Barbara's in particular, McSwain still sees some life. "Let's not conflate the closing of a particular location with [the] chain failing; Barbara's isn't Borders. Just because some locations are shuttering — and it's unfortunate that they are — what I see from Barbara's is adaptation. They recently opened a new location in Burr Ridge, and the kiosk model described in [Duffer's] article is indeed an efficient (and legitimate, I might add) way to sell books and stay afloat. I wouldn't count Barbara's out anytime soon."

Jack Cella, manager of Hyde Park's Seminary Co-op Bookstore, noted that while he's not sure he would say his and other Chicago indie favorites are "thriving," they are definitely "hanging on, thinking about ways to improve [and] trying to remain part of, and contribute to, the Chicago literary (and in our case academic) life."

Cella, hopeful about the sales tax equity movement, knows that the survival of independents ultimately rests on the shoulders of their patrons. Luckily for him, he still encounters, on a daily basis, "people who value coming into bookstores, browsing through books, recommending books [and] talking about books and ideas."

Powell's general manager Ryan Jackson has a theory about why Barbara's has shut down a number of locations — and it has nothing to do with the "bookstore as destination" going the way of the Dodo. The problem, as he sees it, is that those on the corporate side weren't "making smart decisions," notably about their choices of which books to stock. Because of these poor top-down decisions, Barbara's stores simply "weren't carrying great books" and were stocking up, instead, on "sidelines" — such as calenders, stationary, journals and greeting cards.

Liz Mason, manager at Quimby's, feels that while Duffer's concern is "something to think about," Quimby's is "totally" still a destination for readers. "I guess I can see where someone might get [Duffer's] impression. You would probably have that outlook if you were [looking at] a business that was folding...[but] we're lucky because we've got a lot of stuff that you don't normally get at a regular bookstore. The people that shop here wouldn't anticipate that we wouldn't be there [one day]."

Ann Christophersen, co-owner of Women & Children First, is decidedly optimistic. "We independent bookstores certainly face many challenges, but many of us have been able to respond to the changing landscape by making necessary adjustments in our businesses, including selling Google ebooks on our websites at prices competitive with prices at the biggest online retailers."

Her business partner, Linda Bubon, reported that their "Nov./Dec. sales were up 30 percent over last year. We have not seen an increase like this since we moved to [Andersonville] in 1990...For the first time in seven years, we [indie booksellers] are all planning for growth rather than survival."

"The familiar Mark Twain line," concluded Christophersen, "is certainly apt for independent bookstores: 'The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.' Many of us plan to be around for many, many years."

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Anonymous / January 30, 2012 10:50 PM

When the University of Illinois first created this space for a book vendor both Powell's and Barbara's Bookstore put in bids. Barbara's won the RFP. Now Powell's is replacing them. What role did the contract play? How is one independent replacing another an indication of the "Death of the Bookstore as a destination?" I agree with the optimistic crowd, fewer better independent bookstores in the years ahead not death. Mr. Cella has it right, the "bookstore" will continue to evolve as and some will succeed as the centers of literary life, some people still send postcards as status updates, not everyone wants a virtual life 24/7.

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