Foothill readers keep bookstores alive

By Michael Kay, The Union Democrat April 22, 2010 08:59 am

The release of Apple’s iPad this weekend added one more competitor for already beleaguered independent bookstores.

There’s Amazon’s Kindle. There are Borders and Barnes and Noble. And most prominently, there’s the Internet.

    Small bookstores across the country are closing up shop as people choose to buy online.
    Berkeley, arguably one of California’s most bookish cities, has seen nearly half a dozen bookstores close in recent years, largely due to competition from the Internet.
    But the trend appears to have largely bypassed the Mother Lode.
    Both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties support more bookstores than their populations might imply.
    Murphys has two bookstores to serve its 2,000 residents. Angels Camp, population 3,500, has one general bookstore, one Christian bookstore and multiple thrift stores with abundant selections. Sonora has two to four stores, depending on how you count them, along with the well-traveled book nook at Wal-Mart, for its 8,900 residents.
    There is no consensus among owners of these stores why the two counties, whose combined population is short of 100,000 or about the same as Berkeley’s, support this many book sellers.
    “We happen to be blessed with a lot of people who do enjoy reading,” said Geri Graham, who recently sold her Angels Camp shop, Books and More, to her son.
    “I am completely lost without a book. We have so many people in the area that are the same way,” she said.
    Nevertheless, her store makes more than half its revenue from renting videos. And her son, who she calls a “computer geek,” has told her: “They won’t be publishing books much longer.”
    Graham is not so sure. People want a book in their hand, not another gadget, she says.
    Susan Shoaff, owner of Sustenance Books in Murphys, figures the persistence of the area’s bookstores is at least in part due to the nature of the owners.
    “You’ve got people willing to make a very little bit of money,” she said.
    She figures the area’s large population of heavy-reading Bay Area retirees also keeps business up.
    The newly introduced iPad may actually help the situation, as it may force Amazon to adjust its pricing structure on the Kindle. Plus, she notes, there are still relatively few books available on either virtual platform.
    On the other hand, with margins tight and business suppressed already, the impact could go the other way.
    “It could break us,” she said.
    Some sellers say the Internet, which has been a bookstore slayer in so many other communities, has actually helped.
    “I can get books at a fairly decent price,” said Floyd Oydegaard, who owns Columbia Booksellers & Stationers.
    He tried selling online, but it didn’t work. His specialties — Columbia, Gold Rush history and the 19th century — are “not one of the most popular topics on the Internet,” he said.
    Others say it just doesn’t have an impact.
    “I really like to shop on the Internet too, but sometimes it’s better to have it in your hand right away,” said Robbin Coane, owner of Sonora Used Books.
    Local competition is also less than it might appear, as most shops have their own niche. In Sonora, for example, Wal-Mart sells mass market new books, Mountain Bookshop tends toward smaller run new books, Legends sells predominantly used hardbacks and Coane handles used paperbacks.
    “For me, because I’m a used bookstore, I need other bookstores to kind of keep me going,” she said.