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Indie booksellers struggle, used bookstores fare better

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When Richard Rathers first opened Book Buyers in 1999, people warned him about difficulty of attracting Charlotte's paltry reading audience. "I heard it a lot: 'Charlotte is not a reading town. People don't read,'" he recalled.

"Can't prove it by me," Rathers continued. "From the day I opened, I was selling books faster than I ever dreamed I would. And it's really continued."

Nevertheless, the notion that Charlotte is not a town of readers has persisted, even before the economy tanked. Now, the independent booksellers -- the same ones who have grappled with online retailer Amazon and big box chains such as Barnes and Noble and Borders -- are dealing with a faltering economy.

David Friese, co-owner of The Bookmark, said business is the worst it's been since he and his wife, Kathy, opened the shop in Founders Hall 17 years ago. "It's crummy, and that's putting it mildly," he said.

At Park Road Books, sales were down 5 percent last month. They probably would have dropped further had the store not hosted several special events, said co-owner Sally Brewster. Business setbacks started with the gas shortage and worsened when the banking crisis hit. "These are the toughest economic times I've ever been through," she said. "It was a little rough after 9/11, but nothing like what's happened this time around, because this affected every aspect of the industry. The credit crunch has hit everybody."

Used booksellers, however, seem a little less strapped by economic woes. Rathers said business lagged when gas prices climbed to record highs, but it's already picked up in time for Christmas. "When times get a little hard, people come here rather than going to Borders," said Rathers. "So we're almost recession-proof. I've heard that, and our sales basically support that."

Darren "Jaz" Vincent, owner of RealEyes Bookstore in NoDa, which has only been open for a few years, doesn't feel recession-proof, but he's buoyed by the notion that people won't stop buying books in a bad economy -- instead, they will scale back from new to used. "We go as low[-priced] as we can," Vincent said.

Still, he's had to be creative to keep the store afloat. In 2006, he began the annual Charlotte Literary Festival, which has brought poet Nikki Giovanni and erotica novelist Zane, among others, to the city. The festival has helped the bookstore garner attention and develop its customer base. "If I didn't have other stuff [than RealEyes] going, I would probably have been done ages ago," Vincent said.

He's optimistic to plan for the future, however. If he can find a partner, Vincent wants to start a huge bookstore and still keep RealEyes open on North Davidson Street.

"I love NoDa. If they don't kick me out of here, I don't think I'll leave," he said, laughing.

Rathers' optimism led him to recently extend his lease for five years. A former teacher, railroad conductor and coal miner, Rathers opened Book Buyers in a 1,000-square-foot space. A year later, he moved to the current 2,500-square-foot spot at the corner of Central Avenue and the Plaza. Less than two years later, he added almost 4,000 square feet. And recently he added another area devoted to bargain $1 books. "It's easy to stay in business," he said. "There's no shortage of books; there's really no shortage of customers. It's just a little bit frustrating not to have every book that everybody comes looking for."

For all its success, Book Buyers about two years ago quit buying books from customers when sales were down and Rathers found himself with an over-abundant stock. "It didn't make sense to continue buying when I already had a lot of books, and I was already getting so many books free."

Indie booksellers, used or new, have to keep readers from heading to Amazon or driving to a big box retailer. Brewster said Park Road tries to stay competitive by employing staff who read voraciously and know the store's stock. The store encourages authors to have readings, and Brewster also speaks to book clubs. She and co-owner Frazer Dobson choose books wisely. "At our store, you know that people have selected the books, they know the books, and they're more than willing to give recommendations," said Brewster, who bought the store in 1999 (it opened in 1977). "Sometimes you have to shut us up, in fact. We're not just clerks ringing up an item."

The Bookmark caters to Uptown businesses and workers, including Wachovia and its employees. Its appeal to that customer base is convenience; the overwhelming bulk of its customer base work within walking distance of the store. Friese said that means it's less affected by online shopping (with its unavoidable shipping delays) or big box retailers farther from the city core. "Our readers are loyal, but they don't expand much," he said.

That niche market has helped The Bookmark stay afloat, but staying afloat is hard now that banks and their employees have cut back on book buying and construction has disrupted some parts of Founders Hall.

If sales don't improve, Friese isn't sure how much longer the store can remain open. "Things have to turn around," he said. "They might not have to turn around tomorrow, but they have to turn around soon. We certainly can't hold out for two more years. I don't know if we can hold out a year."

Brewster is keeping her fingers crossed and has hired an additional staffer before the Christmas rush. "Charlotte's been wonderful to us, and we want to stay here," she said.

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