by Pete Mazzaccaro
In this week’s issue, Sue Ann Rybak reports on Jake Sudderth, a Seattle native who has done the unthinkable and purchased a used-book store that he plans to move to Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy.
That bookstore, Walk a Crooked Mile Books, is a nearly 20-year-old neighborhood institution. Founding owner Greg Williams decided early this year that he wouldn’t be able to keep the store open. Smart money said the store would close quietly, but Sudderth came along, purchased the business and is now getting ready to open in a prime Avenue retail location.
One has to admire anyone who decides to put his money in an independent book store – especially one that sells used books – in the year 2014. It is an act of courage that is staring down not one but two seemingly unstoppable trends in our culture that would seem to suggest that opening a neighborhood bookstore is a fool’s errand.
First is the state of printed books. Accorging to a Pew study in late 2012, approximately 25 percent of Americans reported reading “e-books.” Today, Pew notes, 32 percent of Americans own an e-reader, and 42 percent own a tablet. There are no hard figures that track volume sales of print vs e-books, and there are many print products that will probably never go out of style – from kids books to coffee table tomes. But the writing is on the wall. Every e-book sold is a print book not sold.
Second is just the basic economics of a retail store. Today there is an enormous amount of pressure and competition for any brick and mortar store. Amazon can get you nearly anything you want in two days or less and can likely get it to you cheaper. And it can do so from your phone while you’re sitting on your couch. That’s a tough thing to compete with.
Of course, the outlook doesn’t have to be so grim. Prognosticators are not optimistic about the future of Barnes and Noble, the original big box book store that was first in making the economics of the indie book store difficult. If the business does go out of business at the end of the year, it will make indie shops much more valuable.
With some books, holding them in one’s hand makes a big difference. E-books offer previews, but the first 20 pages rarely give you a good sense of whether a book is worth buying, particularly with guide books and other reference books. The same is true of kids picture books and coffee table art collections.
As many other successful retail businesses in both Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill demonstrate, customers can still support a local retailer because, ultimately, the local retailer can offer service and input that Amazon will never deliver short of airlifting sales reps to your door via quad-bladed drones (yes, that’s a real thing).
The key, too, is for all of us to give the former Walk a Crooked Mile store – now called Mt. Airy Read & Eat – and every other retail business in our neighborhood a chance. Go. Visit. Making a purchase locally is a good way to invest in your neighborhood. You can’t say the same for Amazon, unless Jeff Bezos is your neighbor.