Local booksellers hope to ride the ‘niche’ wave

12/27/2011 10:00 PM |

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Patricia Mott, co-owner of Antiques & Old Lace in Cutchogue, displays some of the store’s older books.

The book market is in flux; it doesn’t take a bibliophile to notice it. Change is afoot, but some local booksellers hope those same changes will give business a boost — rather than be an element in their demise.

In September, the death throes of the nation’s second biggest bookstore, Borders Group Inc., were witnessed locally when the Riverhead Borders closed its doors months after filing for bankruptcy.

Librarian Ned Smith at Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead said, “Most of the book dealers that used to have shops have gone out of business or just do online business now” because “the availability of online books has made it difficult to compete.”

Borders Group Inc. formed a partnership with online seller Amazon.com in 2001 to help drive Internet sales. Borders ended that partnership in 2008 and began competing directly with Amazon. But it was too late. Ultimately, the paper book giant failed.

Amazon, whose company profile on crunchbase.com calls it “one of the most trafficked Internet retail destinations worldwide,” now offers a “Price Check” app that allows people to scan books at a physical book shop using a smartphone, then search for the cheapest price available if they order through the Amazon website.

Kim Gavin of Portland, Ore., who runs the “Occupy Amazon” Facebook page, calls the app “a blatant stab at brick and mortar retail establishments.”

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine made a statement two weeks ago, calling the app “an attack on small businesses fighting every day to compete with giant retailers.” She said “incentivizing consumers to spy on local shops is a bridge too far.”

Last month, Amazon released the Kindle Fire, the latest in tablet technology allowing consumers to download and read books electronically. The Fire is currently listed as the “No. 1 most-gifted product” on the online store’s website.

These trends don’t seem to scare some East End antique book dealers.

David Hewitt, who was a Southold history teacher for over 30 years and just opened the On Track bookstore on Youngs Avenue in Southold, said the Kindle has “absolutely” affected physical bookstores.

“Although I personally do take credit for putting Borders out of business,” Mr. Hewitt joked in a recent interview.

He insists Borders failed because it did not adapt to new ways books were being made available to the public. The Kindle’s popularity, he said, is because the product “fits the lifestyle of a lot of people today. That is, not having stuff.”

Michael Kinsey, co-owner of Black Cat Books on Shelter Island, said people use tablet technology for “content” reading and shop at stores for interest-area needs and desires. Lawyers might research law on their Kindles, he explains, but “they still like the old leather-bound law books” to display in their home or office. This niche, he said, is what makes antique book businesses viable while new bookstores continue to close.

“You can read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ on a Kindle but a signed [copy] is still a collectible,” he said.

Mr. Kinsey thinks as the cost of publishing a physical book rises, and electronic publishing becomes more and more popular, physical books will continue to be published, but in “limited batches … the way they still release vinyl, but most people download.”

Gene Mott, co-owner of Antiques & Old Lace on Main Road in Cutchogue, agreed that, based on the trend, peddling physical books is a good investment. “With everything going electronic, I would think books are going to become rarer and rarer,” he said.

With Borders’ recent closing, Mr. Mott said, “There’s going to be us diehards that want a piece of paper to read from.”

His wife, Patricia, the reason the couple peddles books, couldn’t agree more. Her passion for the printed word means carrying an item that some antique dealers don’t, “because [books] take up too much room and there’s not much return,” she said. “But it’s always been my love … the first time I rode my bike to the library [in Coram], I couldn’t believe I had access to so many books.”

Ms. Mott is responsible for each of the estimated 5,000 books for sale at the shop — most of them classics and history books. She buys them from tag and estate sales and when the couple buys an entire estate, she said, they go through every single book.

“Sometimes it takes days,” she said.

Ms. Mott said it’s very difficult to make a living by just selling books, which is certainly not the case at Antiques & Old Lace.

Antique dealer Peter Stevens, on the other hand, sells books exclusively. Owner of The Book Scout in Greenport for 31 years — 26 of them at its current Main Street location — Mr. Stevens said he hand-selected every book on his shelves, just like Ms. Mott.

“The cookbooks are in the freezer,” he said. And he’s not kidding. The cookbooks he sells are lined up in an old, unplugged store freezer. The name of his store describes his occupation, someone who “goes out and looks for books.” But an increase in other book scouts has made this task more difficult, he said.

“I used to buy and sell art books by the carton,” he said, but with more people out searching for books, “there’s fewer good books available.” Selling has also become more difficult, he added, because of a grim economic climate and the “advent of listing books on the Internet.”

When the market is flooded with copies of a book, sellers have to price the product competitively. Mr. Stevens said a man came in to sell him a nautical book, a popular topic for shoppers in a port town. He looked the title up online and found that the book was being marketed for 19 cents.

“People who sell a book for 19 cents make about 65 cents on shipping and handling,” he said, “You’d better be a large group with a big crew to sell a book for 19 cents.”

Mr. Stevens says he uses the Internet to sell a book only “if I have a valuable book and no customer for it.”

But he finds it discouraging to post books on sites like Amazon when 100 copies of the same book are already listed.

“Would you want to be number 101 on that list?” he asked.

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