“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.”
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