Peninsula independent bookstores try to compete by selling e-books

Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler’s Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, is now selling e-books through Google's eBookstore. (Photo: Estela Marie Lactao Go)

Brick and mortar independent bookstores filled with carefully curated bookshelves are still around — even in Silicon Valley, where the latest technologies and innovations are rewriting the business of book publishing.

Even so, their customers are increasingly curling up with Kindles, iPads and Nooks. Independent bookstore owners know how this story will end: survival means getting into the e-book business.

“Amazon has really killed us over the years” by undercutting bookstore prices on its online store, said Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. “So there’s this resistance to online [bookselling] because that’s what Amazon does, and we’re not going to be like Amazon. [But], that’s ridiculous. We have to sell books online.”

This month, that process became easier for independent bookstores. They can now sell e-books from their websites through an exclusive partnership with Google’s eBookstore, which offers millions of digital books for purchase and for free.

Customers can now log in to their online libraries and buy e-books in a more competitive digital book marketplace, that was once monopolized by Amazon but now includes Google and independent bookstores.

“Our role as a bookseller is to provide books in formats that readers are asking for, and that requires us to remake ourselves,” said Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler’s Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., which is using Google Editions.

“We can’t sit and wish that the old days were still here because that’s how you go extinct.”

According to a recent national book shopper survey conducted by the market research firm Codex Group, 21 percent of consumers owned an e-reading device. Some 800,000 e-readers were sold between June and November.

As prices for these devices fall — a Kindle that cost $259 last year is now going for $139 — e-reader sales are almost certain to rise. Readers can buy e-books on the Internet, at prices typically much lower than the print list prices charged by independent bookstores, and they can download their purchases almost instantly, without ever stepping out of the house.

Even people who write those books are wavering in their devotion to print.

Tobias Wolff, an author and Stanford English professor, received a Kindle as a present. Although he said he prefers reading paperback books, he conceded that the Kindle has a number of advantages. Dozens of books can be stored in a single lightweight device, which makes it ideal for traveling. Display technology is improving and now rivals the brightness and contrast of paper. Publishers are increasingly making their catalogs available for download, at prices that often undercut even paperback books.

“E-readers are probably going to win,” Wolff said. Printed books, he said, are likely to become a niche product, for paper-and-ink aficionados.

E-books are only the latest challenge for independent bookstores that have been struggling to survive for decades. Competition from big-box discount stores and major bookseller chains, the emergence of other forms of digital entertainment and increasing real estate prices have conspired to make many independent bookstore owners retire or quit.

For printed books to compete in the digital age, physical bookstores need to find ways to remain in business. One strategy is to offer what the online bookstores can’t.

“While it’s so easy to download onto your gadgets to get what you want immediately, people go to independent bookstores for personal connection,” said Donna Paz Kaufman of the Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates.

Penelope Barcelo, the children's specialist at Kepler's runs a story time program every Sunday at 11:30 a.m. (Photo: Estela Marie Lactao Go)

Stores host story times for children, where printed books come to life. Authors come to discuss, sign and sell their books. Staff members greet customers and ask if they need any help or recommendations. Many customers enjoy an environment where they can disconnect from their gadgets and indulge in books or conversations.

“We know a lot of our customers who come in, and I even know all the dogs too,” said Colt Rosensweig, a Kepler’s employee. “It’s nice when you see the same people and you get a sense of what certain people like.”

But there’s also the “if you can’t beat them, join them” strategy.

“Even if e-books are 10 percent of the market, if we don’t sell e-books we’ll lose 10 percent of our sales,” Landon said. “And we have stores that can’t afford to lose 10 percent of their sales.”

With independent bookstores soon selling e-books, many wonder whether e-books will one day displace physical books.

“There’s always going to be people who can’t afford an e-reader,” Rosensweig said. “But if they want to read something, they can afford a $4.99 paperback book and get the same experience from it.”

E-books may even help printed books survive.

“In order for the paperback books to continue, there has to be a delivery system, and that comes in the form of a bookstore that can viably still sell them,” Kepler said. “I think the more successful we are, as a bookstore, in selling e-books, the more likely paperbacks will be available because we’ll still be here able to sell them.”

The survival of independent bookstores is of particular importance to Northern California.

“In a study we commissioned five years ago, independent bookstore sales were representing 12 to 15 percent of the market,” Landon said. “When asked to break out region-specific information, Northern California was 22 to 25 percent of that, so our percentage of sales in this area was larger than other parts of the country.”

The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association recorded a net loss of five bookstores in the last five years. The reality, however, is that small, independent businesses — from bookstores to bakeries to boutiques — still find ways to hang on.

“It’s interesting to see how the media hold on to the stories that the independent bookstores are dying when they, in fact, are just changing,” said Kaufman, the bookstore consultant.

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