Paula Walker can barely contain her sadness as she speaks about the beloved Aladdin Book Shoppe she and two friends bought together back in 2006.
Started in 1930 — or maybe even earlier — the shop was the oldest bookstore in Oklahoma City when the prior owner prepared to close for good. It was then that Walker, along with fellow retired librarian Sue Jenkins and friend Robert Cote, pooled their money and saved the store.
“We thought it was an Oklahoma City institution,” said Walker, managing partner. “It's been around 83 years. It's important to the city and the state of Oklahoma.”
But the store never was a source of income for the partners — a reality they accepted until health issues and age began to challenge them from pursuing their ongoing passion. On July 31, Aladdin Book Shoppe will be added to a list of at least a dozen other new and used Oklahoma City metro bookstores that have closed over the past couple of years.
“It took us six months to get our heads around this,” Walker said. “We tried to sell it. We would still love to sell it so it can be around for everyone else. But we have our health facing us. We have surgeries waiting.”
Fans of Aladdin Book Shoppe point out it wasn't an ordinary used bookstore, and its charm always seemed to attract people like Walker, Jenkins and Cote to keep the literary candles burning.
The longest-serving custodian of the flame, Jerry Nelson, worked for the telephone company in downtown Oklahoma City. Every day she walked by a little bookstore at NW 3 and Broadway. When it came up for sale in 1959, she arranged for early retirement and indulged herself in every book lover's fantasy. She bought the store.
When Nelson began to face health issues of her own, she turned over the keys to librarian Saundra Shuler. Nelson died shortly afterward, but Shuler kept the store open until 2006. And it was then, while in the midst of closing, that Walker and her partners took over.
What's being lost, Walker notes, is the opportunity for an exchange of ideas and interests among the store's many shelves. Aladdin is the sort of place where a lawyer in business attire ends up looking at out-of-print science fiction titles next to a leather-bound, long-haired, tattooed motorcyclist.
The pair began to talk about their favorite titles. Walker muses the two customers now routinely visit the store and grab lunch afterward.
“You're losing people who know and love books to the top degree,” Walker said. “You lose the connection to other people and to our history.”
Health, a changing business model and competition from digital books and the Internet are all taking their toll on book sellers. But while customers are feeling the loss at Aladdin and other closing stores, not everyone is ready to surrender.
Full Circle Bookstore in 50 Penn Place is the largest and one of only two surviving independent new bookstores left in the metro (the other is Best of Books in Edmond). Full Circle dates back to the 1960s when it was a counterculture shop in Norman called Bread and Roses.
Founder Mark McGee opened a second store called Full Circle Bookstore in 1970 at NW 25 and Military Avenue, then relocated to the former Veazey Drug Store at NW 42 and Western Avenue.
Jim Tolbert bought the store in 1977 as a fulfillment of a dream. He relocated to 50 Penn Place in 1980, when the mall was filled with upscale shops. In the 1990s he faced an onslaught of competition from corporate stores and was surrounded by Waldenbooks at Penn Square Mall, Borders on Northwest Expressway, and Barnes and Noble on May Avenue.
Today, only the Barnes & Noble remains, and the chain just lost its CEO, William Lynch, amid news that revenues from the chain's entry into electronic readers, the Nook, were down 34 percent. A visit to local stores shows that the most prominent display space is dedicated to the Nook.
Book sales still strong
But Tolbert believes Barnes and Noble's distress won't doom the chain, noting the book sales operation is still healthy. Indeed, the physical store operations posted a profit of $374 million in 2013 fiscal year.
“Barnes and Noble's difficulties are significantly related to do with them trying to experiment with digital book buying, getting into e-readers, and trying to take Apple and Amazon head on,” Tolbert said. “That has turned out to be where they are experiencing great losses and pain right now.”
While Tolbert wouldn't mind losing Barnes and Noble as a local competitor, he argues that Full Circle and the book industry need Barnes and Noble to survive.
“It's not to my advantage or to the advantage of the publishers for Barnes and Noble to go out of business,” Tolbert said. “For them to go out of business nationally would dramatically alter the book-publishing industry. It would be very hard for them to provide the service to us and allow us to maintain our share of the distribution.”
Tolbert knows the trick to survive is to constantly monitor the industry and adapt. He added a fireplace and comfortable seating when big box stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders became popular. He more recently added a wine bar and seeks to keep the store booked with events all week long to maintain a connection with the community.
The Nooks, iPads and Kindles have all taken their toll on book sales.
“There is no opportunity for bookstores like mine to participate in that revenue stream,” Tolbert said. “They don't buy physical books, and the market has contracted permanently. About 25 to 30 percent of all books sold in the country are electronic. That means that the entire universe of book sales has shrunk. That means my potential market has shrunk by that size.”
Tolbert has seen sales steady the past couple of years, and believes the expansion of e-books, for now, has “crested.”
“Part of this phenomenon is generational,” Tolbert said. “It's hard to read at this point. Young people, 18 to 30, are not buying many physical books these days. People 50 to 70 still like physical books … So we're fighting seriously over the people between 30 and 50.”
One trick, Tolbert said, is to keep parents coming into the store.
“Childrens' books remain big, and they are a way to keep people coming into bookstores,” Tolbert said. “And you can't teach a child to read, with love, on an electronic device. So our experience is people come to buy books for their children, and then for themselves.”
Taking the fight online
Wayne Stephens jokes his book-selling career began in 1975 when he bought 500 books for $25 at a garage sale. A few years later he started a religious bookstore at Heritage Park Mall. He later started up a used bookstore and at one point operated four stores.
Just six months after Amazon started selling books online, Stephens' Archives Books followed suit. It is now the second-biggest used book dealer on eBay and among the top 500 rated vendors.
“The e-readers don't help — but people are distracted,” Stephens said. “When they ask people have you read a book this past year, it is one out of 13 who say ‘yes.' It's a struggle, but we keep changing and doing things differently. If we didn't have the Internet business, we definitely would be in trouble.”
By being online, Stephens said, he sells as many books with his one store and warehouse as he did with four locations. He was concerned at first when a Half Price Bookstore opened down the street last year (the only new competition in the local bookstore community in years).
But instead of being driven out of business by the big chain, Stephens has happily struck up a friendship in which the two stores refer business to each other.
Like Tolbert, Stephens believes more upheaval is ahead. But despite the loss of Aladdin, Stephens believes local bookstores will survive.
“Books are works of art,” Stephens said. “We sell a lot of older books. People like physical objects. You can loan a book out, an e-reader you cannot.”