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Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Light in the Dark?

Every month, more indy bookstores close their doors for good. Recently it was Cody's in San Francisco and Davis-Kidd in Nashville, and soon it will be Bethel Avenue Book Co. in Port Orchard, WA, and The Muses Bookstore in Morganton, NC. But not all news from the world of independent bookselling is bad.

Oblong Books, a small bookstore in picturesque Rhinebeck, NY, was the subject of a front-page feature story in USA Today last Thursday. The 2,600-square-foot store is being increased by 1,000 square feet to make more room for children's books, educational toys, and touring authors. Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of the bookstore with her father, Dick Hermans, reports that 2010 revenue for both Oblong stores (the original, founded by Dick Hermans in 1975, is located in nearby Millerton, NY) was $2.5 million, up 2% from 2009. "We'll happily take that," the younger Hermans says. She credits customer service and her stores' popularity as a community gathering spot for the stores' strong sales. A growing "Buy Local" movement doesn't hurt, either, nor do the stores' vibrant series of author readings; last fall Stephanie Meyer visited Millerton for an Oblong-sponsored event.

In a forward-thinking and perhaps counterintuitive move, Hermans is embracing e-books. Her customers are able to buy them via a link on the stores' websites to the Google eBookstore.

The e-book offering is certainly something that could never have been foreseen when her father opened the first store thirty-six years ago and its stiffest competition was the Book-of-the-Month Club and other mail-order book clubs. "Back then, Amazon was only a South American river, Barnes & Noble sold college textbooks in New York City, and Borders was an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan started by University of Michigan students and brothers Tom and Louis Borders."

While she is clear-eyed about the growing popularity of e-books and the ever-present shadow of Amazon (which accounts for an estimated 22.6% of the book market, according to Albert Greco, a Fordham University marketing professor who studies book retailing), Hermans is also clear about the role of the physical bookstore in today's world. "People may think they can live online, but in reality they live in real towns and cities, and physical bookstores help enrich those places."

No doubt the people of Rhinebeck and Millerton would agree.

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