Bookstores are Struggling, Reading is Surviving
Times are difficult for bookstores in Midtown, and with the closing of Borders, some people wonder if bookstores are on their way out.
The Midtown Borders will stop opening its doors this October. The Atlanta Book Exchange, one of the most beloved used bookstores in Atlanta, sold its last book recently after 35 years. Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse sent out a plea for support in May. To top it off, many people in Midtown say that if they buy books, they buy them online.
What does this mean for books and the community?
Is this the death knell for bookstores? Or will they find new ways to survive in the age of technology and electronic books?
The end of Borders
After Borders announced the closing of its remaining stores, readers stood in the chain’s Ponce de Leon store, with tears streaming down their faces, and poured their hearts out to employees.
This is the moment employee Craig Waldrip had a realization: A bookstore is not like other stores.
“When a grocery store closes people don’t care. They just go to another one,” he said. “Bookstores mean community.”
He remembers feeling numb when he first heard the news of his employer’s demise.
“It’s like losing a friend,” he said.
People form connections with bookstores. It’s about more than books. They enjoy the comfort, the knowledge, the connections, the smell of the pages.
Now many of the hundreds of books in the Midtown Borders store are out of order, some fall to the floor without being picked up and obnoxious yellow banners hang from every surface. It’s obvious that the store is living out its last days.
Still, for 10 years, it played a role in the lives of many in the community.
With a big smile, Waldrip tells me about six-hour Harry Potter events full of children and adults in costume and store employees rushing to rip open boxes of J.K. Rowling’s latest release.
“It was great to see people so excited about books,” he said.
He also wonders where the many celebrities who shopped at the store will go. He remembers seeing Betty White, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Queen Latifah and Jane Fonda (who he calls a regular) and others at the Midtown store, which will leave behind an empty space half the size of a football field. A space that may take a while to be filled.
Once upon a time Borders existed as an independent. Then, it grew and put other independents out of business. With its end, many people are hoping that more independents will open up.
“I think indies will hang on,” Anthony Owsley, a Decatur resident said while shopping in the Midtown Borders. “They appeal to niche markets, like record stores are appealing to people who like to collect vinyl.”
Outwrite is one of these indies, catering to the LGBT community but also hoping to represent the diversity that surrounds it. Now, it is the only independent option in Midtown.
“I do prefer independent/used bookstores because it's sort of like treasure hunting,” Kelsey Agnew said. “I've wished on more than one occasion for a great used bookstore in Midtown.”
The rise of e-books
Books and bookstores are tangible. E-books and websites are not something we can touch, yet they are becoming the answers for people today.
“I feel like everything will be online eventually,” Doris Smith, a Borders regular, said.
For now, she’d rather go in and look at a book than buy one online, so she’ll now be heading to Barnes & Noble when she needs to find religious books for her studies.
In May, Amazon, which currently captures the highest percentage of the book market, announced that people bought more e-books than print books.
Locals are also buying more e-readers and e-books. They aren’t completely happy about it though.
Neil Weston, a research engineer, is browsing books at the Georgia Tech Barnes & Noble. He calls himself a bibliophile.
“I usually buy online,” he said. “I feel guilty.”
Agnew said she also she feels shameful about her decision.
“I love [bookstores] when I'm there, but I always end up buying online,” she said.
Most bookstores are waking up to the digital trend and finding ways to satisfy their customers. Many experts argue that Borders slow adaption of e-books and the Internet is one thing that did them in.
Philip Rafshoon, the owner and founder of Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse, is ready to make changes so that his store can become a high-tech bookstore. He already sells e-books and will be updating his website in the coming months. He thinks customers will interact with in-store download stations in the future.
“We hope to grow and change,” Rafshoon said about the bookstore he wants people to see as the cornerstone of the Midtown community.
The importance of the physical
Clearly, people appreciate something about the physical location that is Outwrite. After sending out a call for help, Rafshoon said he’s seen business pick-up and has lists of people who want to volunteer their time and skills.
As places you can go, bookstores are wide open for opportunity. Some of Waldrip’s fondest childhood memories involve going to bookstores and flea markets in the Atlanta metro with his relatives.
“I do fear for human interaction,” he said, talking about the end of Borders. “When bookstores close, it’s one more physical thing.”
Other opportunities for books locally
Libraries are another physical place for books ... books that are free. This is something that many people often forget, or for some reason, don’t feel like taking advantage of.
But for Cal Gough, manager of Peachtree Branch Library, libraries are very much alive and provide a unique opportunity for people who want to read more than new releases and who may not be as concerned with owning the book.
Borrowed books are also a great way to test out if you want to buy a book. And, yes, libraries have e-books.
“With technology, I think we’re gaining more users than losing,” Gough said.
Another unique option for finding physical books is called Vouched Books, which recently arrived in the city. It’s website says it “exists to promote small press literature.”
At Young Blood Gallery & Boutique, on the edge of Midtown, Vouched recently held one of its guerrilla bookstores by setting up a table at a poetry reading and selling small press titles that they love.
Laura Straub, who works for Vouched in Atlanta, is very excited about the future of books and online publishing.
“Although I would agree that the book store industry is definitely in a transitional period, I completely disagree with the concept of book stores are dying,” she said in an email. “There's nothing in recent statistics that would support that (or the fall of the book or literacy for that matter). Seven thousand and fifty one million books were purchased in 2010 and, although that is a drop from 2009, it's still 750 million books sold, in the middle of an economic recession. The demand for literature is certainly there, we're just in an adjustment period of how those books are purchased.”
Right now, Borders is offering discounts up to 50 percent on its stock. Everything must go, including the furniture. Outwrite will hold a fundraiser at Escorpion on August 18.