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The state of New Orleans' indie bookstores

Jeanie Riess on how local booksellers are coping with online stores and e-readers

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On a recent morning at Maple Street Book Shop, owner Gladin Scott leads me over to the desktop computer behind his cash register. "Let's see," he says, shaking the computer mouse to wake up the monitor. I'm looking for a Richard Ford book but can't remember the name of it, and Scott can't think of it off the top of his head, though we've confirmed it's the last title in the Frank Bascombe trilogy. Scott opens up a web browser and types in Ford's name. When the book's title appears, he goes back to the shelves.

  It's a process that would take a shopper about five seconds on Amazon.com, or as Judith Lafitte, co-owner of Octavia Books, cheekily calls it: "The Big A."

  The Washington state-based Amazon has nearly every advantage over local, brick-and-mortar stores. Most states, including Louisiana, don't require the retailer-publishing conglomerate to collect a sales tax, and it's also a loss leader, controlling the market share as it slashes prices in half. It offers free delivery on everything from Peter Rabbit books to wide-screen TVs, and with its own publishing house, its ability to dominate the book world threatens publishing companies and local booksellers alike.

  Though Amazon's shadow looms large over local bookstores, it's just the latest in a string of what Octavia Books co-owner Tom Lowenburg calls "predators" that have unable to dislodge New Orleans' print literary culture the way iTunes and other music sharing sites, for example, hastened the demise of record retailers. As Susan Larson points out in the rerelease of her local literary guide, The Booklover's Guide to New Orleans, book culture is alive and well in the city and booksellers are staying above water in an ever-precarious and changing market.

  Beginning in the late 1990s, big-box stores wedged themselves into city blocks down the street from local bookstores all across the country. They offered warehouse discounts and fancy coffees. (That tension was depicted by the 1998 romantic comedy You've Got Mail in which a local Manhattan bookstore was forced to close because a Barnes & Noble-esque mega bookstore chain, Fox, moved in a block away.) New Orleans largely avoided the threat of the big-box stores, something Garden District Book Shop owner Britton Trice attributes to geography.

  "We've been very lucky over the years," he says. "Geography has a lot to do with it, in that there were never many large blocks for the big-box stores to move into."

  That was true until after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in 2005, when Borders, the big-box chain that declared bankruptcy two years ago, reappropriated the former Bultman Funeral Home on St. Charles Avenue using $4.5 million in Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone money (the funding allocated to the city for economic development in 2005) to renovate the historic building into the strip mall bookstore for which the company was known.

  When that happened, local bookstores took a hit. "With the opening of Borders on St. Charles, we saw a huge decrease in business," Scott says. "When Borders closed, then we saw an increase in business again."

  Garden District Book Shop, which was six blocks away from Borders, also suffered, mostly because it couldn't compete with the chain store's low prices and exposure, Trice says.

  Lowenburg, who owns Octavia Books with his wife, Judith, isn't sure if it was Borders or Katrina that stopped the bookstore's growth, but the number of shoppers leveled in 2010, when the big-box store opened. Borders closed in 2011 after the entire company went bankrupt, shut 399 stores and laid off 10,700 employees. Borders blamed its demise, in part, on the e-book and a turbulent economy.

  What's odd is that both the e-book and the economy haven't dramatically affected local bookstores in New Orleans. Though sales aren't booming, they aren't in decline.

Maple Street Book Shop owner Gladin Scott (right) talks about books with a customer. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Maple Street Book Shop owner Gladin Scott (right) talks about books with a customer.

  Local bookstores have adapted to changing challengers. Instead of shunning the Internet and the e-book, for example, Scott uses them regularly to learn about books with his customers.

  "When you talk about books and literature ... those things (the Internet and e-books) are really tools more than anything else," he says. "We'll frequently go to Fantastic Fiction to find out information about authors while we're talking to the customers, just so we can learn about the authors together with the customer."

  Trice says the promised meteoric climb of the e-book was anticlimactic. "We're seeing customers come in who have said they got an e-book as a gift and just don't like it," he says. "Or people who actually went out and bought them and said, 'I thought I would like this, but I like having a book in my hand.'"

  Larson isn't worried about the e-reader either. Upon retiring from her post as The Times-Picayune's books editor, a colleague gave her a reading device. Though she uses it, Larson says she still buys real books, even those she already owns in an electronic version. "I read faster on an e-reader, but I'm also completely unable to read some things (on one)," she says. "I can't read (Charles) Dickens on an e-reader. His sentences are too long." Asked about William Faulkner, Larson just laughed.

  Her son, Dash (who is named for the noir writer Dashiell Hammett), says Larson fetishizes books. "I'm not really sorry for that," she says. "For a lot of people, their physical presence will always be really important."

All three Uptown bookshops adapted to the e-book threat early, inviting KOBO, the electronic reader that is both a device and a mechanism for buying e-books, onto their bookshelves. What sets KOBO apart from other devices is that it allows readers to buy e-books through local retailers, so bookshops get a percentage of the e-book sale. It's not a great bargain and won't come close to selling real books (in part because e-books are much cheaper than bound books), but it would have sufficed had the e-book taken off the way some feared.

  E-book sales account for a small percentage of business at local bookstores. At Octavia Books, sales of e-books for KOBO make up less than 2 percent of book sales. Though the music industry has become almost unrecognizable in the last 10 years, shifting from records to tapes to CDs to iPods to software, books have largely remained books.

  With the empty threats of the last decade, it all comes down to Amazon. New Orleans bookstores are as confident they'll withstand that giant as they were certain they'd withstand past threats. So far, New Orleans consumers have proved them right. That's partly because bookstores are more than just places to buy books; they host author events for local and national writers, develop relationships with schools and other businesses in the city and offer something Amazon or the next best thing will never be able to sell: knowledgeable, personal service from people who have spent their entire lives reading.

  In September alone, Octavia, Garden District and Maple Street bookshops say they anticipate between 12 and 15 readings and signings. Those events bring potential customers into the store and encourage them to buy books. In some cases, bookstores like Octavia and Garden District Book Shop have started to charge customers to attend author events to ensure a profit. The cost of admission generally is the cost of a book; Lowenburg says it's designed to prevent people from hearing an author speak and then buying the book on Amazon. The money also helps pay for larger events that must be held outside the bookstore.

  Larson says literary events are happening all over New Orleans — not just at shops that sell new books but also at a host of antiquarian bookstores downtown. Crescent City Books, for example, hosts a monthly literary salon where writers and readers share work. "One of the things that's really interesting to me is these lively antiquarian booksellers," Larson says. "And so much of it happens in bars! The fact that Maple Leaf Bar has had a reading series for as long as it has is phenomenal."

  At Larson's book launch a few weeks ago, more than 125 people packed Octavia Books, a standing room-only crowd that consisted of local authors and loyal readers.

  Local bookstores are intertwined with New Orleans' literary community, as well as the city at large.

  "I think each of the booksellers is very community-oriented, working to reach out to schools, to businesses and to create a welcoming environment in each of our stores," Scott says. "That's not what Amazon is there for. The purpose of this place isn't just to sell books. We've been a resource to the community for 50 years. There are not many businesses that can say that."

  Lowenburg takes authors from school to school in New Orleans, enabling young readers to meet literary celebrities. Garden District Book Shop is a sponsor of Family-to-Family's One Book at a Time literacy campaign. In these ways, local bookstores are working to put books in the hands of as many people as possible, not just for business purposes but also because it's the right thing to do, Scott says.

  Where booksellers are really building community, however, is within their own shops, Larson says.

  "They are beloved local characters, sources of support and friendship and dependable advice — kind of like bartenders," she says. "When people think of Octavia, they think of Tom and Judith; when they think of Garden District Book Shop, they think of Britton and Ted and Amy; and when they think of Maple Street, they think of Gladin and Cindy. These individuals become important parts of our lives."

  Amazon has a logarithm for recommending books, but Scott has been reading books at Maple Street Book Shop for 40 years. The new website Bookish.com, which attempts to recommend books the same way the website Pandora.com recommends music, also uses a logarithm to recommend titles, but Joanne Sealy of Faulkner House Books has been serving the same customers for the past 24 years and says she knows exactly what they'll like.

  "We send them books we know are perfect for them," she says.

  Lowenburg says Amazon can't compete with his shop's service. "We want people to understand what we provide and what we do better," he says. "Compared to Amazon, we have a physical place where you come in and browse for books. We have a knowledgeable staff and ... a top selection of books. ... We pay attention to what customers request and what they're reading."

  Even beyond books, New Orleanians tend to buy local, whether at Rouses or on Magazine Street. Lowenburg points out that local businesses were the first to reopen after Hurricane Katrina and New Orleanians haven't forgotten that.

  At Faulkner House Books, the tall, skinny building where William Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldier's Pay, Sealy feels confident about the future — and about defeating the next giant.

  "We'd rather not have to deal with The Big A, and I'm sure we've lost a lot of sales," she says. "But independent bookstores are making a comeback because all of the big guys have eaten one another.

  "We're still here after 24 years. It could be better, but we're still here."

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