In North Carolina, disturbing news for booksellers blew in with the Ides of February – the announcement that one of our landmark used bookstores was closing in March. Nice Price Books, which also has stores in Durham and Raleigh, is shutting down its store on the west side of Chapel Hill, after 26 years. In news accounts, the owner cited lousy business, brought on by internet competition and digital readers, as the primary cause. This must necessarily give those of us in the trade reason to be apprehensive, if not to visibly tremble. One has to ask, if they can’t make it, located as they are in the shadow of UNC-Chapel Hill, with a population many times the size of the 16-mile distant Pittsboro, what chance does Circle City Books have? Of course, it also occurred to me that the disappearance of a competitor could only increase my chances of attracting to my far-off stacks whatever dwindling faction of readers still buys books. Somehow, though, that seems a very thin silver lining. No, it can’t be good when one of the few magnets that still pull readers away from their devices and into the sensate world of books vanishes.
There is one element to the story that I can cling to with hope that hidden behind the scene is a less ominous reality. The store’s owner also owns the property and the building that houses it. Along with reports of the store’s demise came the additional news that the property has been sold. Located nearly next door is a large hotel complex that is still under construction; maybe the real spur behind the closing is a spike in the property value, that made selling $5 books, no matter how many, seem pretty small potatoes compared to the immediate windfall of a land sale. And who would begrudge the modest bookseller his chance to cash out when there’s cash at hand? And if cashing out it is, I suppose it would be impolitic to advertise it as such, particularly if you still have two brick-and-mortars wooing customers.
In any case, after four months of business – and today marks that exactly – I can say that my survival is showing signs of hope. On the bright side, I chose an auspicious season to open a business, matching the excitement and novelty of a new store with the compulsory shopping Christmas imposes. I did well into January, better than I had expected. But hard after the holiday, traffic subsided and I’ve eased into the steady, but marginally sustainable, trickle of slow-season business. Dreary weather for much of the past month is part of it, but the warmer and longer days of spring are ahead, and with them business should improve. I haven’t really started to buy advertising yet, and there are still many potential customers who don’t know I exist. And I still have a lot to do to get my inventory well-displayed and organized. I am just starting to understand how to use readings to promote the store. Because I managed to keep my overhead under control, I have a sufficient cushion to endure slow months. Perhaps the biggest adjustment that I’ve had to make in the past few months is to lower the price I pay for books. I’ve barely been able to keep up with the volume of books that customers haul into the store on a daily basis. I had a nice selection of books when I opened, but I had some worry that I wouldn’t be able to easily replenish my stock just from walk-ins. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who just want to drop off their books without being paid for them. And customers who do wait around to receive payment are uniformly happy just to get something, even if it doesn’t seem like very much. And it’s a good thing too, because if there is any secret to keeping a used bookstore open, it’s to keep prices low enough to compete with online sales, and to do that you can’t sink much capital into stock.
So that’s the latest from this one faint beacon of light pulsing from the gathering gloom of a world that once honored, but now can’t quite decide about, the book.