The final chapter of independent bookstores

    Bookman’s Alley owner Roger Carlson. Photo by Katherine Shaum / North by Northwestern.

    On a rainy afternoon in January, Bookman’s Alley is almost empty. Roger Carlson, the store owner, sits at a book-strewn desk near the entrance, and in the course of an hour, only a single customer steps in. She disappears in the back, looking for a book on hypnosis.

    The store feels like your grandfather’s study would, if we lived in a time where old men still regularly kept large libraries with worn leather chairs and bowls of gumdrops. The store’s a mess, or maybe it’s magical; it depends on your point of view. Shelf after shelf, case after case, is lined with hardcover books, stretching across the room; then turning a corner, disappearing into a labyrinth of books. No surface is left uncovered, no wall undecorated: trophies, sporting equipment, an original, framed letter by Dorothy Parker, military uniforms, a piano and a chalkboard listing the bestsellers of 1980 compete for your attention. Hand-written signs organize the store — “Presidents” on one bookcase, “Black Interest” on another, and an ox head with the words “Western Americana” written on it direct you through the maze. You can’t walk five feet without stumbling into a chair, ready to catch you, entreating you to stay. And in the front, watching over the world he has created, sits Carlson, listening to Chet Baker as the music drifts softly through the store.

    Whatever else it may be, it’s the end of an era. Bookman’s Alley is one of eight bookstores within easy walking distance of campus — a respectable number, but, according to former Evanston bookstore owner Jeff Rice, only a fraction of the 20-something Evanston had in its golden age. Evanston hasn’t shrunk in 20 years, so how did a 75,000-person college town that could once support two dozen bookstores lose so many of them?

    In the past two decades, Evanston bookstores have gone the way of countless bookstores across the country. Independent bookstores, which sell new books, and used bookstores work on different models, but were hurt by the same competitors. First, Barnes & Noble and Borders came in, centralizing a good deal of books and drawing walk-in customers away from Evanston’s other stores. Recessions came and went, reducing how much luxury spending people could afford. Then, 1995 brought, overturning bookstores’ most basic business models and introducing crushing competition. In short, the big chains hurt locals; Amazon killed them.

    Great Expectations

    So what happened in Evanston?

    There are, in fact, only three independent bookstores selling new books left within walking distance of campus, and that’s if you count Beck’s Books and Adler’s Foreign Books (though the latter is a warehouse without a traditional storefront). The other is Comix Revolution on Davis Street, and both it and Beck’s are technically local chains, as Comix Revolution has another branch in Mount Prospect and Beck’s has several in Chicago. The only used bookstores left nearby are Bookman’s Alley on Sherman Avenue, Amaranth Books on Davis, and Howard’s Books on Foster Street and Maple Avenue.

    View Larger Map
    A map of independent and used bookstores within a few blocks of campus.

    Carlson, who opened Bookman’s Alley 30 years ago, has watched as other used bookstores have gone out of business. He says he understands the appeal of the chain stores and how they so rapidly replaced local businesses. “They have attractive shops with food and coffee. For the first few years, they became gathering places,” he says. “They were taverns that don’t sell liquor. They were an attractive alternative to something that wasn’t there before.”

    But the answer to why a few remaining bookstores survived is the same as the answer to why others couldn’t. Near the Foster El stop, a sign for Great Expectations, a bookstore, hangs above the newly relocated After Hours video shop, which this past summer replaced the Russian Press Service in that space. Great Expectations closed eight years ago, but the sign is a reminder of what was arguably the greatest bookstore in Evanston history.

    According to Howard Cohen, owner of Howard’s Books, Great Expectations was “the best philosophy bookstore in the United States for many years.” Whereas Barnes & Noble might carry three or four books by Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, Great Expectations would fill three or four shelves.

    Once a Northwestern undergraduate and now a history professor here, Jeff Rice was the last owner of the store. He paints a romantic picture of it, a place where professors would meet, famous writers would come and go (Saul Bellow got kicked out of the store “for being an asshole”) and people would get into political arguments and shouting matches while a Cubs game played in the background. “And what independent bookstores could do was make that happen,” Rice says. “They were salons.”

    So how, in a college town, could one of the greatest scholarly bookstores in the country close in the same year that a comic book shop successfully opened less than a mile away? It has to do with the kinds of books each sold. In the book industry, there are three types of books: textbooks, academic/scholarly books and trade books — which are, essentially, everything else. Trade books, which are often the cheapest, have the largest profit margin between the price the bookseller pays to the publisher and the price he charges customers.

    What this means is that selling trade books is essential for subsidizing a core collection of other books, which often cost more to maintain. For a store like Great Expectations, which dealt in academic and scholarly literature, trade books were what allowed the store to stay in business. After all, it’s easier to sell a copy of Oliver Twist than it is to sell obscure books about Martin Heidegger.

    When Barnes & Noble opened its first location in Evanston, it drew away the walk-in customers that had helped cushion Great Expectations. “Literally, within a month, we were watching our business drop by 25 percent,” Rice says. But as the “preeminent scholarly bookstore in America,” according to Rice, the store had a loyal base of mail-in customers who had few other options. Before the arrival of Amazon, it was often difficult for collectors or scholars to get books. After Amazon was founded, mail-order sales dropped by 75 percent.

    Which leads to the final point. Real, physical stores need inventory. The only way they can survive is to have on hand the books that customers seek. “To every book there is a buyer, but that buyer may never come in or may come in once,” Rice says. To sell 50 books, Great Expectations had to carry 800. Physical bookstores have limited hours, pay high rent costs and suffer from theft. All Amazon needs is a warehouse.

    The lone survivors

    Comix Revolution thrives because it serves a niche market, has no real in-town competition and deals primarily in trade. Beck’s is the only physical alternative to Norris, and with often-lower prices, it’s in fair shape. But it’s hard to imagine any other independent bookstore that could make it.

    The used bookstores that remain have survived mostly through will. It took Carlson 10 years of working 70- to 75-hour weeks at Bookman’s Alley before he began making a decent living. “I was fairly certain when I started that it involved a vow of poverty,” Carlson says.

    He joked that, despite having only about a quarter of the business he did five years ago, the only thing that might close the store in the next few years is his death. At 80 years old, he has quietly, stubbornly defied the changes the rest of the bookselling world has had to accept — namely, moving to the Internet.

    “After opening, I had a choice: to either join them or die, or at least leave the business,” said Howard Cohen, owner of Howard’s Books.

    “The business has changed radically, and I have not changed radically,” he says. “I don’t have anything on the Internet. The last few years I’ve been doing this mostly for the fun of it, and [the Internet] isn’t fun.”

    Howard’s Books, according to Cohen, has survived through “stubbornness and having a wife who supports us.” But he did not have the luxury of shunning the Internet. Cohen says that Carlson is one of only two owners he knows who has not put any inventory online, but that without it, Howard’s Books would have to close.

    “After opening, I had a choice: to either join them or die, or at least leave the business,” Cohen explains. He estimates that as many as two-thirds of his total sales now take place online. And while the Internet opens up a larger customer base, the sheer competition forces prices down — which is good for customers, but bad for the bookstores.

    The owners of Amaranth, Bookman’s Alley and Howard’s try to help each other. “We’re all friendly. We don’t see each other often, but we refer people to each other’s shops,” Carlson says. “We’re all desperate people.”

    How we help kill bookstores

    Any basic economics class will teach you one of the great lessons of capitalism: economic efficiency. We are taught that the best, least-expensive products will thrive, inefficient business will fail and consumers will ultimately benefit from lower prices.

    Of course, this basic lesson comes with the assumption that the only thing that matters is how much something costs. And at a time when even the least-engaged people regularly check up on how the Dow is doing, maybe it is all that matters. But anyone who’s watched their favorite local coffee shop go out of business and be replaced by a Starbucks, or who saw Arrested Development get canceled while The Bacheloris now in its thirteenth season, can tell you that sales and numbers and profits can tell you what’s popular, but not necessarily what’s the best.

    The interior of Comix Revolution. Photo by Katherine Shaum / North by Northwestern.

    Despite their college-town location, most Evanston bookstore owners say they don’t think that students really help sustain their businesses. Carlson and Cohen both say they rarely see students, though Comix Revolution enjoys a somewhat larger share of student customers. “I don’t think they’re interested in books at Northwestern,” Carlson says. “I think they’re interested in the money they can make when they get out of school.”

    Which isn’t to say that anyone really blames students, per se. “Students, even at Northwestern, they’re very cost-conscious, which I understand,” Rice says. “And if you put a book in a bookstore at $20 and they can find it online at $5, why shouldn’t they buy the $5 book? How do you get to ask them to support their local bookseller rather than save $15?”

    Still, the problem may be more than just price. Carlson may have a point; with so much work and reading devoted to classes, and as a generation that’s comfortable reading online, students may not be reading many “traditional” books.

    Daisy Chen, a first-year Medill graduate student, says she never goes to bookstores. “I really don’t buy any books, my whole life. There is no need for me to buy books because you can get everything online.”

    “And if you put a book in a bookstore at $20 and they can find it online at $5, why shouldn’t they buy the $5 book? How do you get to ask them to support their local bookseller rather than save $15?” said Jeff Rice, former Evanston bookstore owner.

    Even students who do read, however, rarely stray beyond the comfort of the chains they’re used to. McCormick freshman Cole Berhorst says that because he doesn’t have many independent bookstores in his hometown, he’s just used to buying books at the chains. “It’s habit almost, you never think to shop somewhere else,” he says. “The brand name is really powerful.”

    And advertising hasn’t helped. Cohen tried to advertise in the Daily last year, offering a coupon for $5 off any purchase to new Northwestern students. Only three customers brought in coupons; two were elderly.

    Waldenbooks are closing across the country; its parent company, Borders, is in big trouble. Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest book retailer, is losing money but staying afloat; the Evanston branch has shortened its hours. But if the trend continues, in a few years you may only have two options for buying books: order from Amazon or shop at the one mega-chain that will remain.

    It makes sense. Even Northwestern alumnus Jim Mortensen (Weinberg, ‘94), who runs Comix Revolution, admits that physical stores are inconvenient. “I think it’s just what we have and how we offer it is very inefficient,” he says. “We have to have the individual item someone’s looking for at the moment they want it and at the right price.”

    He predicts that the book industry will die in five to ten years, and that competition with digital distribution will mean that even his own business will have to change its focus, maybe to selling comic-related merchandise rather than comics themselves. “You can download a comic, you can’t download a t-shirt,” he says. “There’s ways to sort of change things or mutate the core of what we do into something different, but I don’t know that there’s any way to hang on to what we do today.”

    The death of bookstores will not come without consequences, even if some are mostly romantic. The art of browsing, of wandering around a bookstore and finding something that catches your eye, of literally judging a book by its cover and deciding to try something new, is dying. The salon-like atmosphere that Rice describes already sounds like a hokey glimpse into the past, an indulgent memory like those of malt shops and drive-in movie theaters.

    “A real bookstore is not just a place where books are bought and sold. It’s a place where an intellectual life takes place,” says Bill Savage, a senior lecturer in the English Department and Weinberg adviser. He often orders books for his class through Comix Revolution, encouraging students to enter a bookstore that doesn’t also double as a college paraphernalia shop.

    He compares stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble to McDonalds and Burger King. “Sometimes you have to have a cheeseburger and okay, that will do,” Savage says. “But if we didn’t have any other restaurants in Evanston, would we feel happy about that?”

    But the greatest consequence may be the loss of professional expertise. Now, anyone who sells a book online is a bookseller, not a book expert. Mortensen says he occasionally had customers come into his store, solicit his advice and knowledge, find a book they liked, then write down the ISBN to purchase it elsewhere. There’s even an iPhone application designed to find the lowest price for a book online when you enter an ISBN. It’s an incredible convenience — and how can you tell a generation that grew up downloading music from Napster and reading free newspapers online that information costs money?

    A sign outside Howard’s Books. Photo by Katherine Shaum / North by Northwestern.

    A sign in Howard’s window reads: “Come in and find that perfect book you weren’t looking for!” It’s a used bookstore credo, the idea that you’ll look around and stumble across something great that you weren’t expecting to find. But it also implies that you’re looking in the first place.

    Back in Bookman’s Alley, the phone rings. Carlson picks it up and talks for a few seconds, but he doesn’t have what the caller is looking for. A few minutes later, his one customer walks out. She leaves empty-handed.


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