MILWAUKEE — “Eat, Sleep, Read Local” say the red signs on the front of Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, Wis., near Milwaukee.
They’re a reminder that Next Chapter is a locally owned bookstore — one of a fast-diminishing number in an industry that’s struggling to cope with the changing nature of the way people buy and even read books.
A couple of decades ago, the threat came from the rise of the big chains: giant Barnes & Noble and Borders stores in or near major shopping centers.
Then came the Internet, with Amazon.com taking an aggressive stance to maintain its tax-free selling advantage. And now there also are e-books, transmitted wirelessly to electronic devices such as the Kindle, Nook and iPad, piling on yet another layer of stress for the brick-and-mortar stores.
Yet in the face of all that, Next Chapter, operating in a former Harry W. Schwartz bookstore location, and other booksellers are still standing, even as the nationwide Borders chain is liquidating in bankruptcy. Three Borders stores in the Milwaukee area closed this year.
“The independents and all brick-and-mortars are in the same boat,” said Lanora Haradon, owner of Next Chapter.
So how are the survivors coping? There seems to be no single secret, although each of the remaining local independents has found a way to offer enough extra value and a sense of community — book club meetings, appearances by bestselling authors, discounted books for students — to convince customers they’re worth the trip.
Haradon’s store has built a reputation over the past two years as a host of author events. For instance, Next Chapter will be the site of a ticketed Sept. 1 event for the release of Lesley Kagen’s book “Good Graces,” a sequel to her bestselling “Whistling in the Dark.” And Alton Brown of the Food Network will appear there Oct. 8 to promote his new book, “Good Eats 3: The Later Years.”
“It’s really a testament to the community support we have here,” Haradon said.
Next Chapter has more author events scheduled this fall than it hosted during its entire first year in business, she said.
Haradon’s continuing challenge has been to let people know her store exists. Even after two years of operating in a location that has been a bookstore for more than 15 years, local residents come and say they didn’t know the store was there.
“My worry is, with less brick-and-mortar outlets, that people will say, ‘Let’s just go online and buy it,’ ” Haradon said.
At The Little Read Book in Wauwatosa, Wis., owner Linda Burg has stayed afloat by selling books from local high-school reading lists to students at a discount and by adding nonbook items, such as cards, that yield higher profit margins.
But she has also cut expenses by trimming a few hours from the schedule, thus saving on labor costs.
In downtown Waukesha, Wis., the Martha Merrell bookstore has taken in a neighboring gift shop, Cuddles, to create a combined store that cuts expenses for both.
“We’re still here, still surviving,” said Norm Bruce, owner of Martha Merrell.
Martha Merrell’s books and Cuddles’ gifts are intermixed in the shop — stuffed animals positioned with children’s books, for example — and customers can check out everything at one register.
The store is something of a mecca for book clubs, Bruce said. Forty clubs order materials from him, and many of them meet in the shop’s loft. Some have food brought in from nearby restaurants, creating another synergistic relationship.
In some cases, the independent booksellers are even flirting with the enemy in hopes of keeping a share of the book market. Both Next Chapter in Mequon and Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, another former Harry W. Schwartz location, have started selling e-books that can be used on certain e-readers, including the Barnes & Noble Nook. They can’t sell for the popular Kindle because it’s a proprietary device connected to Amazon’s own online store.
“I never thought I’d be selling a Barnes & Noble product,” said Daniel Goldin, Boswell’s owner.
Goldin also finds some irony in the fact that he is in the same camp with Barnes & Noble on the subject of the need to force online retailers to collect sales tax on all transactions. Amazon.com has been able to legally avoid collecting sales tax in most states where it has no physical locations, and it continues to campaign hard to maintain that situation, which gives it a distinct pricing advantage over local stores.
The local owners remind shoppers that the sales tax they pay in their stores goes to support local public services and schools.
In the Milwaukee area, the only bookstore that has expanded in recent years is Half Price Books, a Texas-based, family-owned used book chain that operates 118 stores in 16 states.
Sales at local Half Price stores suffered during Borders’ recent going-out-of-business sales, district manager Joe Desch said. He said he expects it may be a little more difficult for the local stores to get recently used titles with the loss of the Borders stores.
Like the locally owned bookstores, Half Price doesn’t view other brick-and-mortar stores as competition.
“The Internet is competition to us,” Desch said.
The company is in the process of putting its used-book inventory online, on a store-by-store basis.
Bookstore patrons still range from the deeply dedicated to the occasional visitor — and in some cases, even avid readers have become combination analog-digital consumers.
At the Barnes & Noble store in Glendale’s Bayshore Town Center, Amy Thiel, a tax accountant from Sheboygan Falls, was browsing the magazine rack last week.
“I’m a book lover,” Thiel said, adding that the Borders closings saddened her.
She travels to Milwaukee often, she said, and had shopped at the Borders store on Brown Deer Road there.
If brick-and-mortar bookstores no longer existed, she said, “you no longer can browse the bookstore shelves and find that hidden gem. You can’t do that online.”
Yet Thiel buys books from Amazon when the online seller offers a percentage discount and she also buys e-books for her iPad.
A few miles north at Next Chapter, Judi Lemirande, a snowbird who divides her time between Grafton, Wis., and the Tucson, Ariz., area, was thumbing through a cookbook. It was her first visit to a bookstore in a year, she said.
“I’m not an avid bookstore person,” Lemirande said. She buys books at other stores, such as Costco, but she still values bookstores.
“I really don’t want them to leave,” she said, “but I’m not sure if I’ll patronize them more often.”
And that’s the rub. Even bookstore owners are left to wonder whether the sense of community and the added value offered by their establishments will be able to hold off the technology-driven changes in their industry.
Butterfly, an independent children’s bookstore in Green Bay, Wis., closed this summer, citing economic woes.
Goldin, at Boswell, sums up his store’s survival this way:
“It’s a house of cards,” he said. “Nothing seems to make sense about it. I don’t make as much as I could doing something else. I’m sort of going with whatever happens.”