Thursday, Oct 18, 2018
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Independent booksellers buck retail trends


    Employee Allison Coss places books on the shelves at Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Monday, April 30, 2018.

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    From left, Sandy, Laura and Kelly Wicks pose for a portrait at Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Monday, April 30, 2018.

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    A book-themed decoration at Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Monday, April 30, 2018.

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    Guests order coffee at Grounds for Thought in Bowling Green, Ohio, on Monday, April 30, 2018.

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Brick and mortar is struggling, yet independent bookstores selling new and used books have managed to weather the hostile environment. 

Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School, found bookstores resurgent against online behemoths like Amazon and larger book stores like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, because they champion localism, curate a particular collection of books, and offer community gathering spaces that serve as intellectual centers for communities. 

Thriving might be too strong of a word for local stores, said Denise Phillips, who opened Gathering Volumes in Perrysburg about two years ago. Reports like Mr. Raffaelli’s show more bookstores are opening, but they do not say what is happening at the individual shop level. 

“They’re all touting there’s new stores that are opening. That means we’re all optimistic,” Mrs. Phillips said. “I don’t know that I would say I’m thriving, but I’m doing OK in a horrible retail market. For me thriving would mean I could pay more employees, have more time off, and pay myself.”

Farther south in Bowling Green, Grounds for Thought has been in business since 1989, surviving the disruption wrought by Amazon.

“Independent bookstores, new or used, have had to be very savvy in the last two and a half decades to be able to stand out in this environment,” Kelly Wicks, owner of the used bookstore and coffee shop, said. The store has dramatically increased in size, shifting from a nine-seat coffee shop with 9,000 books to a 7,000-square-foot store with more than a quarter-million books, comics, and vinyl records. 

The shop roasts its own coffee, which it sells in 40 states. It also plays host to groups doing puzzles, playing board or card games, and book clubs discussing their latest reads. But even with a diverse clientele coming into the store for varying reasons, books remain a prominent part of the store’s success, evidenced by the expanded space devoted to the massive book collection. 

“It really is a gathering place for a whole city,” Sandy Wicks, Kelly’s mother and founder of the bookstore, said. “But we still sell a lot of books. I probably process easily 1,000 books a week.”

Having that intellectual center role was always part of the plan for Mrs. Phillips, even if she is not charging event fees for book clubs and birthday parties that use her space. 

“It’s all about adding value. The goal is you add value to the community, people recognize that, and they support you,” she said. “I don’t make money as a party host. I make money because each kid takes a book home with them.”

Grounds for Thought has benefited from the localism trend, in which consumers seek out independently owned, community-centered businesses like the ones that dot downtown Bowling Green. 

“Downtown Bowling Green specifically is a wonderful environment to be a part of,” Mr. Wicks said. “There’s a lot of other great independent businesses that help to bring traffic to the area.”

NeverMore Used Bookstore operates two area locations, 2856 W. Sylvania Ave. in West Toledo and 302 Conant St. in Maumee. The latter shop opened in November.

Mike Balonek, a manager at the Maumee store, said customers appreciate buying books from local businesses. These stores employ knowledgeable people who spend money in the area, he said.

And compared to e-readers like the Kindle, books provide a cozy feeling, Mr. Balonek said.

“Honestly, most of our customers that come in tell us they prefer the physical book,” Mr. Balonek said.

Downtown Toledo is without a bookstore, though it is starting to display the sort of market conditions that could support a bookstore. There is increased foot traffic and the sort of local businesses that Mr. Wicks suggests have kept Grounds for Thought a success. If he were opening a Toledo location, he would target downtown for those reasons. But the business would have to adjust in several ways because of the increased rent costs of being in an urban center. 

“One of the challenges in an urban area is your build-out costs,” Mr. Wicks said. “Bowling Green is still a pretty reasonable place to do business. That would be a challenge, to provide the square footage we have.”

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