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VOL. 10 | NO. 5 | Saturday, January 28, 2017

Turning the Page

Independent bookstores face changing landscape as e-commerce grows and reading habits shift

By Andy Meek

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When a bookstore decides to close its doors for good, the moment isn't always so immediate or possessive of the clean finality that comes with shutting a book at the end of the story.

In the case of The Booksellers at Laurelwood, it is a long goodbye. These final weeks of a liquidation sale that will stretch into February – the culmination of a decision that the store’s finances have become untenable – have meant the slow unwinding of a 32-year-old bookstore that’s closing up shop the same way you fall asleep, fall in love, get old – gradually, then all of a sudden.

To visit the 25,000-square-foot East Memphis institution today is to navigate past chairs stacked in neat piles where attendees once gathered for author signings. There are other chairs, of the cushy variety, with notes attached to them announcing they’ve been sold to someone named Frank; packing boxes scattered throughout; magazine racks stripped of all the news that’s fit to print; and rows of shelved books leaning and collapsing onto each other, an island of misfit toys left increasingly anachronistic in a world where books are pixels and bits as much as they remain physical artifacts.

Shoppers pick over what’s left, as signs around them serve as reminders the clock is ticking. “$160 Sold” reads one note attached to the mirror in the men’s restroom. Another, “Buy 1 CD or DVD at Full Price, Get 1 Free.”

And, “20% OFF All Merchandise. All Furniture and Fixtures are For Sale. Thanks for all your support through the years.”

Surveying what’s left can be jarring for the store’s fans, who’ve taken to social media over the closure, some of them signing a petition in an 11th hour gambit to forestall the inevitable. The scene today must be reconciled against everything that came before, and some of those who do so will lament the store’s fate with a sentimentality that just wants everything put back the way it was; others, with an acceptance that if retailing is hard, running a neighborhood bookstore is a job that’s only done on borrowed time.

All of that is right, and none of it is.

A NICHE WITH LUCK

Talk to enough independent booksellers in Memphis, especially in the wake of news that the Laurelwood store is winding down, and a shared belief emerges. It’s not unlike E.B. White’s declaration in his 1949 essay “Here is New York,” when he warns that no one should let themselves arrive in such a teeming place “unless he is willing to be lucky.”

It’s not just people like Burke’s Book Store co-owner Cheryl Mesler, or Jean Andrus at the South Main Book Juggler or The Booksellers at Laurelwood’s owner Neil Van Uum who know that feeling. An appetite for luck may increasingly be a prerequisite for anyone in the content business – journalists, bloggers, book publishers – anyone engaged in that search for a little corner somewhere they can stake a claim to.

There’s a feeling that “you have to be a little crazy” to run a bookstore today, in Andrus’ words. That’s partly because of the low margins, the fixed costs of rent and utilities, and the convenience of reading on a phone, all of which are versions of the same invisible hand that punched a hole in traditional journalism’s business model. Bookstore owners in Memphis say they’ve greeted those forces the only way they can – go deep, where big boxes like Barnes & Noble go wide.

Sometimes it works. Plenty of newspapers have defined their identity and found that corner. Independent bookstores still exist. Luck, perhaps, keeps some alive, while the graveyard of shuttered stores, failed papers and defunct magazines keeps welcoming new arrivals.

But a neighborhood bookstore, while subject to the same commercial imperatives, is also something a little different.

“We have a well-curated collection here, everything from recent bestsellers to very historic books,” Andrus says about her roughly 1,000-square-foot store. “I don’t think bookstores are going away. I just think they’re going to change and evolve and become your third place. And I want to be South Main’s third place, between work and home.”

Sentimentality tends to greet a closing like the Laurelwood store, which likewise tried to be a similar kind of third place.

“This magical-type of experience can not be replicated in (a) bookstore chain or online,” White Station High School senior Emmett Miskell wrote as an introduction to his online petition hoping to save the store. “While yes, places like Amazon are convenient, nothing can match the experience of walking into the reading wonderland that is Booksellers.”

At press time, almost 2,900 people had signed his digital petition. Meanwhile, the store’s Facebook page has been flooded with comments from fans in disbelief, sharing dismay.

Competitors have also weighed in. Burke’s wrote an open letter to the Memphis community after getting word of the Laurelwood store closure: “In 2016,” that letter reads, in part, “the Booksellers at Laurelwood hosted 109 author events, 104 story-times and raised approximately $35,000 for various local organizations and schools. There is much to be lost if this disappears.”

For Van Uum, the culprit is the numbers on the balance sheet – or the lack thereof. Sales have dipped, he said, while the store’s costs like rent are too high to support. He and his lender came to what he said was a “mutual decision.”

“We weren’t in a position where I could put a 2017 budget together that made sense.”

And so the unwinding of the store continues.

That’s not to say supporters aren’t still hopeful. Van Uum has said he’d listen to an offer to buy the store outright – $800,000 is a floor he says he’d set for that discussion. But it’s a discussion that looks increasingly unlikely as the liquidation unfolds.

Another scenario Van Uum throws out – for someone else (not him) to essentially “start over.” To take staff from the Laurelwood store, maybe some of its inventory, and move into a smaller space, carrying on a scaled-down version of The Booksellers at Laurelwood.

It could still be done yet. Mesler hopes so.

“I’m really hopeful somebody will see that it’s doable, that it can really work in a smaller space,” she said.

“Corey (her husband and Burke’s co-owner) and I have always said – we’ve had to make peace that hand-to-mouth is the best we’re going to do at our scale. You’re never going to get wealthy doing this.”

But that’s not to say, she stresses, the store isn’t working, or that a similar store in a similar setting can’t work. Let someone else chase scale. Independence is its own reward to booksellers like Mesler and others like her.

NOT ENOUGH

Meanwhile, it’s the second time for the Laurelwood store to be in this position during this decade. Formerly known as Davis-Kidd Booksellers, the store got caught up in the aftermath in late 2010 of Davis-Kidd’s parent company filing for bankruptcy. Some stores in the former chain were bought out, while others closed.

Van Uum, who had founded Davis-Kidd’s parent company, left it to run The Booksellers at Laurelwood directly. He oversaw a renovation of the store that included expanding the children’s section and updating the café menu, among other things.

It was enough, until it wasn’t.

The store ran out of time at a time when its sector has actually begun to recover from something of a lost decade. The American Booksellers Association says membership grew almost 13 percent between 2010 and 2016. A headline last year in The New York Times announced “Indie Bookstores Are Back, With a Passion.”

As these words are typed and read, employees are still there at the Laurelwood store, doing what they’ve always done – selling novels, straightening inventory and handling the mundane requirements of keeping an uncertain enterprise going. It will end soon, or maybe it won’t. Perhaps that willingness to be lucky will carry it further yet.

A physical bookstore is nothing if not a manifestation of the people who run it, who keep the shelves neat and the lights on and cultivate a peculiar tribe of old-fashioned bibliophiles. It exists because of them. The rewards, of course, accrue to the readers. The ones who get to spend time wandering the aisles for as long as they want, until they finally pick out the story they decide to take home, knowing it will, like all things, eventually come to an end but not before they hopefully enjoy it while it lasts.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 207 263 9,865
MORTGAGES 197 246 10,862
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 12 1,301
BUILDING PERMITS 138 686 21,643
BANKRUPTCIES 0 256 6,219
BUSINESS LICENSES 29 93 4,032
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 25 85 2,977
MARRIAGE LICENSES 19 71 2,092