Are the days of local bookstores numbered?
With mom and pop book shops few and far between, the death last year of book behemoth Borders and word that Barnes & Noble is hanging on by the skin of its teeth, it’s easy to make that case.
It’s already painfully obvious that music CDs and DVD movies are not long for this world. Chances are if you’re still buying those, you’re mulling over things like AARP memberships and Jack’s erectile disfunction ads.
Face it, what local businesses really are "safe" anymore outside of clothing, drugstores, groceries and necessities people need to purchase in person?
But back to books…
“I don’t think that books are going away,” says Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, the leading purveyor of big name author events in Kansas City. “A lot of people still like the organic book because it’s just you and the book. So I think the organic book is here for at least my lifetime.”
What about libraries? Who really needs them anymore with Google and the Internet just clicks away?
“I think libraries are doing okay,” Jennings says. “And studies have shown that people’s brains – particularly young people – that if they only use computers, where the computer does the thinking and seeking – they won’t be able to remember and think as well. So kids should not just let the computer do everything for them.”
Like newspapers, greeting cards and many businesses, survival in the Internet Age is the name of today’s game.
Faced with competition from huge chain bookstores in the 1990s Rainy Day embarked on a course of promoting its small store by bringing in authors for book signings and talks at area venues. That after watching the majority of its rival, small booksellers bite the dust. First it was the big box stores, then Amazon, Ebay and now electronic books.
“They were going to put a Borders up the street with taxpayer dollars and we were against it,” Jennings says. “Because for us to be able to do what we do we have to have community support. And it would not only have hurt our business, it would have hurt what we were trying to do for the community.”
Yet while it would be unthinkable even a few years back, Jennings and her fellow small, independent bookstore peers are actually feeling sorry these days for mega players like Borders.
"I do because it’s very dangerous for anyone to have too much impact (and control) over an industry," Jennings says. "That’s why we have anti trust laws. So it’s better to have a number of players. We were at the Winter Institute meeting in New Orleans in January and there was a lot of concern about Barnes & Noble. Because we want to be able to have bricks and mortar bookstores where you have people selling books and creating interest in reading. You don’t want people to just be in a cave – you know – a computer cave. We want people interacting and exchanging ideas – especially for budding new authors.
"And you know what? I feel bad for the booksellers who worked at Borders. That was tough. The thing is that they were a community business and a local business to some extent and they invested money into the community. Maybe not as much as us but…"
While Rainy Day dodged the going out of biz bullet in large part by hosting hundreds of author events every year, Jennings and partner-in-crime Roger Doeren decided a few years ago to dial things way back.
"Ohhhhhhh, well we are, but pay attention," Jennings hedges. "I told you we were going to do fewer but bigger. And we were doing 20 to 25 a month – almost every week night – so we’ve cut back some. But we’re still out all of the time. We decided to do fewer but bigger, but we didn’t really affect that very well. But it’s really difficult to get people out now because people are overloaded and they don’t have the time.
"So we’ve realized that we need to make each event an experience. Not just an author signing a book. It’s a total experience – the best experience we can think of for each author -an experience you cannot miss.”
OK, what’s the post-cutback, magic number now?
"Now we just do a couple a week, maybe two or three a week," Jennings says. “We’re still doing well because we work smart and we work hard, but there’s still no rest.”
In the begininng, getting the big book companies to send authors to KC was the hardest part.
“Kansas City was a total flyover zone,” Jennings says. “People just did not believe this was a (legitimate) market. So we did Anne Rice at the Alexander Majors home and we showed ‘em. Nobody had ever done anything like that here before.”
Take author Jodi Picoult’s signing tonight at Unity Temple on the Plaza.
"That’s a big, big girl’s night out for her book Lone Wolf," Jennings says. "It’s fiction and is about the question of who has the right to make end of life decisions. And then Giada De Laurentis is coming to the Midland on April 5th and Lauren Conrad the star of The Hills will be at Unity Temple for another girls night out on April 10th. And MSNBC host Rachel Madow and I will be having a conversation at the Uptown on Earth Day in April, so that’s going to be really fun."