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Coast store closing doors, Oxford mecca sees strong growth...what does it mean?

Opinions vary on status of state’s independent bookstores

Former Gulf Islands National Seashore ranger Ed Kanze has a new non-fiction book coming called “Kangaroo Dreaming” based on his experiences in Australia. Kanze is sending e-mails to all his friends telling them they can see a color photo of the cover of his book at Amazon.com’s Web site.

“Looking for a perfect gift for your mailman, internist, gynecologist, proctologist, psychiatrist, carpenter, plumber, electrician, mechanic, mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, friend, teacher, student, dog, cat or wombat?” Kanze asks. “Why then, ‘Kangaroo Dreaming’ is just the thing. It’s thick enough to be useful in settling domestic disputes, heavy enough to be useful for pressing botanical specimens, and what’s more, you can actually use it for its intended purpose, which is to say, for reading.”

But while he suggests visiting Amazon.com to view the cover, he recommends anyone who is inclined to buy the book purchase from a local independent bookstore.

“Amazon and the big superstores have put well more than half the independent bookstores out of business in the last 10 years, and the survivors need your business,” Kanze said.

One of those independents, Favorites Bookstore, won’t be having a book signing for Kanze’s new book as it has done previously. Owner Marilyn Lunceford is throwing in the towel. She said it is just too difficult for independent bookstores to compete with giant bookseller chain stores and the Internet.

“The giants have taken over,” said Lunceford, whose has operated Favorites Bookstore in an historic Victorian cottage in downtown Ocean Springs for seven years. “They have the power and the clout to take out the independents. Amazon.com is awesome. It is sucking all kinds of book buyers into cyberspace up there, and it has yet to show a profit. And, it is tax free.”

Lunceford blames the problems of independent book stores not just on Amazon.com, but also on Congress. She feels consumers are “romanced” by the tax-free status of Internet sales, and that the U.S. Congress has sinned against Main Street retailers by maintaining the tax-free status.

“I can tell you this. No one gave me a break on sales tax when I opened my small business,” Lunceford said. “Where’s the equal playing field? Cyberspace is doubling its sales every four months. That’s not a struggling infant anymore. That’s a rip-roaring, growing adolescent. Give them exemptions on sales tax for another five years, and that is going to be an awesome challenge for independent booksellers. The bottom line is that the independents are severely endangered.”

But one of Mississippi’s most prominent booksellers believes the tide may have turned in favor of independents. Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford and a former president of American Booksellers Association, said that in 1999 he saw the strongest percentage growth in his business seen in five years. The trend is continuing this year.

“Of course, it is always very difficult to determine why your business goes up or down, particularly in today’s economic climate because there are more various kinds of competition than there ever have been,” Howorth said. “I don’t think the Internet poses a formidable threat to brick and mortar stores because they are two different things. People go to physical bookstores for very different reasons than visiting the Internet.”

But he realizes that they are selling the same product. So if customers perceive that prices at better on the Internet, or if they perceive that service is better at an independent book store, those perceptions will affect where books are purchased.

Howorth said that although Amazon.com has yet to show a profit, the discounts offered have diminished.

“I think if you look into it fairly carefully, you’ll find the same thing as at the large bookstore chains,” he said. “The discounts aren’t anything like they were two and five years ago. So, on a price basis, I don’t think there is much competition. An Amazon or Internet customer doesn’t pay sales tax, but they have to pay shipping costs. There is the convenience factor in that you can shop in middle of the night on the Internet. But physical bookstores offer something that no e-tailer can: the opportunity and experience to browse, examine the books physically, look at them, read the first few pages, see the jacket art and make a judgment about buying the book. You can’t do that on the Internet.”

Surveys have shown that about 80% of all books purchased in bookstores are sold to people who didn’t know they were going to buy the book when they walked in the door. They either planned another purchase, and bought another book in addition to the planned purchase, or the customer was simply browsing for something interesting to read.

“We like to present customers with a friendly, comfortable atmosphere in which to browse and look at books,” Howorth said. “That’s the way our store works. I believe we satisfy customers in that regard, and they buy from us as a result.”

Howorth believes that in the past few years a growing segment of consumers understand the difference between independent bookstores and their competitors, and choose to differentiate between the two with their spending dollars.

“Five years ago people almost didn’t know the difference between an independent and chain bookstore,” Howorth said. “I think that has changed. People are realizing that communities are economically and culturally healthier with diverse, locally owned stores. It is not just bookstores, but bookstores are on the front lines in this economic battle, as I see it, because of what we sell. Books contain ideas and information and are critical to a healthy, democratic society. And so people are taking a stand with books and bookstores that they don’t necessarily always take with hardware or drug stores. But I think the lessons people are learning in this bookstore war apply to other retail industries fairly significantly.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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