As online giant Amazon continues to face backlash for its alleged bully tactics against writers published by Hachette Book Group and speculation rages as to whether big-box chain Barnes & Noble is headed for the same fate as the now-defunct Borders, independent booksellers in the Triangle are moving to take back the local marketplace.
The past year has been a transitional period for local bookstores. New ones have opened, including Raleigh's So & So Books, a 300-square-foot space shared with architecture firm In Situ Studio, and used bookstore Letters in Durham. Meanwhile, 30-year Raleigh mainstay Quail Ridge Books & Music saw the retirement of founding owner Nancy Olson. Quail Ridge just finished its first year under new owner Lisa Poole, a member of the Waste Industries-founding Poole family.
Poole, who had never run a business before, says that if she could have done something differently, she would have taken financial courses early in her run. She praises the store's longtime staff for helping things continue to run smoothly. "The back room is always humming with activity, day and night, but the customers never see that—it's like the wizard behind the curtain," she says. "Everybody who works out front also works back here with another duty."
Part of that duty is community outreach. For Quail Ridge and other local bookstores, public events and partnerships with local universities are major parts of building consumer awareness and attracting customers. "Having grown up here, staying part of the community is everyday life, not a marketing strategy," Poole says. Either way, it's crucial in the Internet age.
"It continues to be a challenge just to get people to walk in the door," says Tom Campbell, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham. "You need to be doing events, promoting them in ways that you didn't have to 10 years ago, like Facebook and Twitter."
A major part of his outreach is a reading series that brings many national authors as well as local ones, drawing people in to the "handpicked, curated selection of books" that he thinks represents "the heart of an independent bookstore."
"The challenge for independents is to let people know that it's an experience that can't be duplicated on a computer screen," Campbell says. "And none of your money stays here if you buy something on Amazon—it's like you put all that money on a plane out of RDU. It's gone."
Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, which opened its doors in November 2009, has done "better this year than any year we have been open," according to marketing manager Linnie Greene. The store has an expanded section for book signings that doubles as a site for off-campus UNC lectures and gatherings. "You have to make yourself a community center," Greene says.
This year has been difficult for independent bookstores in major markets, with the New York Times reporting the closings and financial troubles of several midtown Manhattan booksellers. Greene says that the lower rents and tighter community of the Triangle are crucial for the survival of stores such as Flyleaf: "You're not paying rent in Grand Central Station."
So & So books has adopted a strategy similar to many New York booksellers by sharing space with another company, which allows them to keep a more limited selection with an emphasis on poetry, including local poets and small-press books.
"We can't afford quantity, so we go for quality," co-owner Charles Wilkes says. He used to manage two satellite branches of Borders at RDU, and he admits that while he's "still figuring things out" with So & So, it's a thrill to not have to stack books based on corporate mandates.
"We just got a shipment in and I'm so excited," he says, "because I know I'm going to love every book out of the box, you know?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Turning the page"