The best American nonrequired buying

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“Have you been here before? It’s three floors. One-hundred thousand books. It’s very well organized. I can give you directions, or you can look at the map. Have a good time.” So says Sandy McAdams, each time a bewildered new customer walks into Daedalus Bookshop.  

Not that he wants to, but Daedalus owner Sandy McAdams says if he sold his business, the new owner wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage.

Inside Daedalus, the towering shelves are packed tight with books, books, more books in each room of the three-story building. You’re surprised to see that the windows have not been covered with shelves for even more books, and you can’t mistake the wet, dusty, almost sweet scent of old paper as you search for the light switch in one of Daedalus’ many rooms. Characters come and go, doing small favors for McAdams, as if you’ve stumbled into a sort of cartoon strip about Downtown Charlottesville. 

But above all, the shop is the domain of a person who loves books so much that he can scarcely say no to taking them into his shop to sell them.

Like dogs and their masters, bookshops and their owners usually look alike. McAdams, 68, is confined to a wheelchair but has a towering presence. Worn by time, but welcoming and capacious, he is much like his shop at the corner of Fourth and Market Streets. “I should have stopped long ago,” he says of bookselling. He’s relied on his wife, a nurse, for health insurance. The business has changed. And books, always more books—there’s just so damn many of them.

McAdams has as many stories as he does books. There’re tales about how he foolishly sold two signed Virginia Woolf’s that he’d bought from a blind man in Manhattan, stories about browsing for books with his Saint Bernard, the one about how Lawrence Ferlinghetti came in and said, “It’s an honor to be in such a famous bookshop.”

McAdams calls bookselling both “crazy” and “spiritual,” which pretty well sums up the experience of browsing his store.

The megastore rose, and now it’s falling. Amazon became the river of words that it promised the world. Which begs the question: With the e-book emerging as its latest contender, can Charlottesville’s bookstores survive another round?

Make no mistake—we have a lot of bookstores. There’s Blue Whale, on the Mall, where all the books are in great shape, New Dominion, where boxes of Grisham’s latest sit in the window, and the Avocado Pit, tucked around the bend from Daedalus, with an eclectic selection. Heartwood Books on the Corner, Oakley’s, Quest, Read it Again, Sam, Random Row, Splintered Light…

There’s also, of course, Barnes & Noble in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, where you’ll see a kiosk advertising the superstore’s Nook e-reader before you’ll see any books, the UVA Bookstore, which vies for student business against the Student Bookstore on the Corner; and then there’s the Charlottesville, Virginia Book Shop, a rare book dealer on Water Street open by chance or appointment only, which is one of a very many cloak-and-dagger dealers of antiquarian books.

Depending on which bookseller you ask, the whole books industry is either “a shambles,” “in chaos,” or “fascinating.” Things are changing in the book business at such a rate that nobody seems to know what the future will be. 

A publishing consultant recently told USA Today that he predicts that shelf space devoted to books will fall by half in the next five years, and by 90 percent the following decade. A Goldman Sachs report forecasts that print book sales will shed 5 percent over the next four years. E-book sales comprise more than 8 percent of the book market. Even some local bookstore owners are reading on a Kindle when they travel.

Three things have effectively happened. In the longer term, big box stores came in and out-competed independent bookstores by having the one book that people wanted, for cheaper. 

As Amazon did big box stores one better, bookshops nationwide started closing their doors—more than 1,000 nationally, between 2000 and 2007. Today, Amazon has nearly a quarter of the book market, followed by Barnes & Noble at more than 17 percent. Borders, which was one of the biggest national sellers with 8 percent of the market, closed its doors as of the first of this month, laying off 10,000 employees.

Despite all the bad news, there are some signs of life. Granted, the American Booksellers Association shed 1,500 members over the past decade—but member stores actually increased over the past year.

Booksellers can attempt to cash in on e-books through partnerships with Google, though the earnings are far lower than with physical books. And despite appearances, Americans of all ages are still actively reading: The trade book market has increased by almost 6 percent in sales revenue since 2008, and overall publishing revenues have grown annually, a full 5.6 percent since 2008.

Laura and Anne DeVault opened Over the Moon Bookstore and Artisan Gallery last summer, across from the Crozet Library. Through a partnership with Google they sell e-books on their website, www.overthemoonbook store.com—and they pay taxes.

Hanging on

McAdams compares working in the used book industry, somewhat wistfully, to “making order out of chaos.” 

“There’s something about used book dealers. We’re like junk men. You’ve got to get them. The idea is to go out and find something that has some value to you, and you sell it for more than you paid.”

The local musician Jamie Dyer was one of the many faces passing through Daedalus on a recent Wednesday when I went to chat with McAdams. We listened as McAdams touched on a theory—it’s not the megastores, the publishers, the websites.

It’s just there are so many damn books out there. “I’ve said we’ve been out of room for a long time. But now we really are out of room. I thought we were out of room 10 years ago.

“But now,” he says. “Hoh! Now I know it.”

“It’s the Internet, too, isn’t it?” Dyer asks, sitting behind me.

“No, no, no,” McAdams says. “There’s just so many books around. Why that is, I don’t know.”

“Have you ever done that? Sold something for more than you paid?” Dyer asks.

“No! Always less,” says McAdams. “To you, in particular.”

Having 100,000 books was once the closest thing book buyers had to Amazon’s proverbial long tail. “When someone says, ‘Do you have John Phillips’ book on mountain climbing?’ You say, ‘No, but there’s a section on mountain climbing upstairs,’” says McAdams. “Fifty percent of the time, they’ll find another book. That’s the idea.”

There have been times when I’ve browsed the teetering aisles at Daedalus in search of one book, but left frustrated, overwhelmed by the selection. I also have fond memories of looking for a book that a friend recommended as essential—Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano—and had the pleasure of hearing that it was McAdams’ favorite book in college.

Having lots of bookshops around town creates a book shopping culture that benefits all of Charlottesville’s booksellers, says Dave Taylor. For 25 years he has run Read it Again Sam, the well-organized shop whose rollers stuffed with paperbacks block the mall. He says that local booksellers have long joked with each other, and shared the occasional dinner. 

“[Business] has slowed down considerably, and the impact of the economy is certainly one thing,” says Taylor. “A lot of local people especially are reading Kindles.” (Even he does while traveling.)

When Taylor first moved to the Downtown Mall he was selling more big-ticket, rare books—maybe a half-dozen a month—that ran into the thousands of dollars. Now his landlord makes more off renting the place to Taylor than Taylor does actually selling books.

Today, he says, “People are evaluating how they’re spending money. There aren’t a lot of people who are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a book.”

“Frankly, I think that bookstores were what Blockbusters were eight to 10 years ago,” he says, referring to the bankrupt video rental giant.

Like McAdams at Daedalus, Taylor’s shop has turned from a source of income to a labor of love. “It’s not a profitable business, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting readers and writers. Everybody who comes in the front door I have something in common with: They’re looking for a good book.”

The Washington Post predicted in a 2005 survey of local bookshops that, “If book browsing survives anywhere, it’ll be in Charlottesville, which has been a magnet for readers and writers for 200 years.”

If that’s the case, Taylor of Read it Again, Sam—not to be negative—won’t have anything to do with it. “I’m 63,” he says. “So my basic plan is, I’m going to be retiring soon.”

“If I were 30, it wouldn’t be the right business to go into,” says Taylor. 

McAdams says he’s going to keep going until he can’t anymore. But then what? Who will run tomorrow’s bookstores?

Jonathan Kates is the executive director of the UVA Bookstore, which recently expanded its retail and computer sections.

An open book

This is the part where everybody looks awkwardly at their shoes, waiting for someone else to speak up, and then a pair of sisters—Laura and Anne DeVault—raise their hands and say, in unison, “We will!”

The DeVault sisters are the latest addition to the local bookselling scene. They run Over The Moon Bookstore, a shop that sells new books next to Crozet Pizza. After driving past many times, I finally went inside to check out the bookstore and “artisan gallery,” just across the street from the Crozet Library. As my girlfriend and I walked through the store, Anne peppered us with questions. What do you like to read? And on from there—have you read this, or this, how about this?

We had committed the cardinal sin of walking into a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, to look for one book in particular.

My girlfriend was searching for My Faraway One, a 700-page collection of letters, some of them apparently quite sizzling, exchanged between Georgia O’Keeffe and her eventual husband, Alfred Stieglitz, over the course of nearly two decades. Anne said that they had it earlier, but it had been gathering dust. So they had sent it back to the publisher.

Meanwhile I wandered, and found something interesting: Positively Fourth Street, a book I’d been meaning to read, but had forgotten about because I couldn’t find it anywhere. As my girlfriend discussed how to get her book with Anne, all of a sudden I didn’t have a choice: I had to spend $18 on this softcover, as a sort of thank you for their having on hand a book I’d been seeking.

“We can order books almost just as fast,” Anne told my girlfriend, as we walked out the door. “And unlike Amazon, we pay taxes.”

I came back to interview Anne and Laura, together, the following week. Sitting in a big leather chair in the corner of the store, I asked, when you were opening the store…?

“Yes,” says Anne, before I could finish.

“Are you crazy?” says Laura. “That’s Southern, for ‘you’re nuts.’”

Anne says that she’d been paying attention to Crozet as a potential spot for a bookstore for years. Subdivisions were growing, and filling, in spite of the recession. The library across the street circulated a lot of books. People seemed to read a lot. All signs pointed to bookstore.

“Right when we opened a lady came in, in her 60s, early 70s,” says Laura, throwing her arms in the air, saying. ‘Praise Jesus.’”

“A lot of people said—and still say—‘Now I never have to go into Charlottesville again,’” says Anne. “This is the only thing they were waiting for.”

The store specializes in a lot of local books, like the Crozet Gazette history columnist Phil James’ local history, Secrets of the Blue Ridge. There are also book parties, including one organized by the local blog SuzySaid, and a thoughtful string of events that highlight the store’s selections.

But there are particular challenges in selling new books, as opposed to used ones, like Daedalus and Read it Again, Sam do. Ken Auletta broke down publisher’s profits in a Januray New Yorker article about the future of the book. He reported that publishers generally receive half the price of a new hardcover book. That percentage covers costs ranging from author’s royalties to rent to distribution; the other half goes toward the bookseller’s costs.

This was of particular benefit to publishers of textbooks. “When you were shopping for textbooks and bellyaching about the price—when I was shopping for textbooks and bellyaching about the price—the publishers were very, very comfortable in the place they were in,” says Jonathan Kates, executive director of the UVA Bookstore. “[The bookstores] didn’t mind the bookstore people being blamed for the prices”

“Maybe a couple of years ago I would have said, ‘10 years, primarily e-books for classrooms,’” says Kates. “Now I’m wondering if that may have accelerated some.” Today the UVA Bookstore, which is a non-profit, has options for students, ranging from book borrowing, to book renting, to e-books.

If the 20,000 students up the road stop having to buy book-books, it may help solve McAdams’ problem, of having too many used books.

While a non-profit university bookseller can harness the power of technology, companies like Amazon can be a brutal enemy to a store like Over the Moon. (The UVA Bookstore just completed a large expansion—of its computer sales and other retail departments.)

As Anne hinted at on our first visit, Amazon is in the middle of a protracted legal battle to avoid paying sales tax in California. When the company had been previously forced to do so, it promptly fired all of its California affiliates. 

Amazon also has a controversial history of “strong-arming” publishers, the DeVaults say. Take an example from last year: Since it is the leading seller of e-books, it has more or less been able to set the prices for e-books. When Macmillan, one of the six biggest publishers, refused to sell for $9.99, Amazon pulled access to Macmillan’s books. Amazon ultimately capitulated to the publisher’s demands, selling the books for around $13, but that appears to be the exception to the rule.

Of particular importance to shops like Over the Moon—through whose website you can buy e-books—is that the kind Amazon sells can only be read on the Kindle device that you can buy through Amazon. The profit margin on selling e-books through their website, is “quite tiny.” 

The DeVaults joke that their work at the bookstore is more or less on a volunteer basis. But they say that they have developed a good group of loyal customers who shop there not only because it’s a great little bookshop, but also on principle—and these patient souls are willing to wait for special orders.

Some come in just for suggestions. One e-book reader apparently showed up with a camera to take pictures of books, so that she wouldn’t forget what the book she wants looks like when she goes to order it online, says Laura DeVault.

What did you say? “I said, ‘GET OUT,’” Anne laughs.

Order from chaos

If the act of carefully selecting your stock and offering suggestions to customers is, like McAdams told me, one of making order out of chaos, one conclusion seems inevitable: humans—that is, the bookshop owners—will lose to the computers.

To make suggestions for its customers, Amazon uses “market basket analysis,” plugging your previous purchases, products you “like” and other user information into an algorithm that spits out related stuff you might like. If it needs help, you can visit the “Recommendation Betterizer” page to better tailor the site’s recommendations to your actual interests.

When I first walked into the New Dominion Bookshop, owner Carol Troxell appeared to working through the store’s accounts with pen and paper. They don’t keep track of what’s in stock with computers, she says, because it keeps the employees more engaged with what’s in stock. “We sell books,” she says. “That’s what we do.”

“The competition is fierce, and we’re just going to continue to do what we do,” making suggestions and pushing local authors.

At Over the Moon, the process is also quite simple. Laura sums up how it works when you’re a repeat customer there: “I think you’ll like this book because you said you liked the last book we talked about.”

“There’s a name for this, and I don’t know what it is,” she says. “But you know how Netflix does this—if you liked this, then here are your next suggestions? It’s like that.”

Whether Charlottesville’s bookstores survive depends largely on whether people are willing to spend money on the bookstore experience—of sniffing through the stacks, of talking to their colorful owners, of being willing to settle for something that’s maybe not the book that they want, but one equally good.

“You’ve got to have people who like bookshops,” says McAdams. 

“Specific titles—I hate to say it—the Internet, even for me, kills us.”

After borrowing E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley from a friend earlier this year, I grew hooked on the book’s subjects: The Collyer brothers, a pair of well-educated New Yorkers with a hoarding problem so nasty that the cleaning of their house in 1947—they were both found dead inside the booby-trapped labyrinth of newspapers, junk and books—became a national media event. 

Wanting to learn more about the brothers, I logged onto my account at Amazon.com, and was recommended two different books: One called Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, a popular recent survey of hoarding research, and Ghosty Men, a New York Times writer’s history of the Collyers, interspersed with personal history of an uncle who loved stuff.

Both were good, fun reads. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might have worked closer to the heart of the matter by simply walking to Daedalus, and looking around.

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