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How Baltimore's independent bookstores are thriving in the age of Amazon

What if the pterodactyl had refused to go extinct? What if you moseyed down the 6000 block of Falls Road or the 1700 block of Aliceanna Street and found a brontosaurus sitting on the corner?

In a sense, when you walk into the Ivy Bookshop or Greedy Reads — or A Likely Story in Sykesville or Red Emma’s in the city, or too many other independent booksellers to mention — that’s exactly what you’re seeing.

For the last decade, pundits have decried the imminent death of the publishing industry and in particular, of brick-and-mortar book bins, which peaked in the 1990s at about 3,000 stores, according to the American Booksellers Association. The stratospheric rise of Amazon supposedly had placed the indies on life support, just as eBooks were thought to be killing off physical volumes. The statistics were grim — from 1995 to 2009, the number of independent bookstores in the nation fell by a staggering 43 percent. Later, the highly visible shuttering of behemoth Borders Books in 2011 lent credence to the gloomy prognosis.

But not only did the independents refuse to die, they rebounded and even experienced a growth spurt. In 2018, the ABA has 1,835 members operating 2,470 locations — a 31 percent increase in companies and a 49.6 percent increase in the number of physical stores in just nine years.

“The urban legend about indie bookstores being an endangered species has been hard to break,” said Oren Teicher, the association’s chief executive officer. “Amazon remains a fierce competitor, but we’re hanging on. Physical bookstores are not going away.”

One local example: Baltimore welcomed a new independent bookstore, Greedy Reads, in March. The Fells Point emporium is operated by Julia Fleischaker, who spent the previous two decades working in publishing.

“The first five months have been awesome,” Fleischaker said. “I lucked into a community that wants to shop local, and I became a part of the neighborhood so much quicker than I would have thought.”

Partly, the indies have benefited from developments in the national publishing industry. But savvy store owners like Fleischaker and the Ivy Bookshop’s Ed and Ann Berlin and Emma Snyder* have helped themselves by enmeshing their stores deeply into their neighborhoods. They run book clubs and sponsor visiting authors, organize literary festivals and raise money for local organizations.

Even Amazon has implicitly acknowledged the appeal of book-and-mortar stores by opening a few of its own; Maryland has an Amazon Books in Bethesda and two pop-up stores in Columbia and Annapolis malls.

Teicher said buying books is different than shopping for other consumer goods.

“Book purchases happen by discovery,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of books are bought because you find them on the shelf of a bookstore or a library or because they were recommended by someone you trust. Interacting with the physical book is very important. You need exposure to the product to make the sale.”

The independents’ growth has correlated with an upsurge in sales revenues from hardcover and paperback editions.

Revenues from hardcover book sales were $5.92 billion in 2017, an increase of 10.7 percent in four years, according to the Association of American Publishers. During the same period, eBook revenues declined by 36 percent to $2.08 billion last year.

No one thinks eBooks are going away. They’re convenient, arriving instantly and weighing nothing. But industry observers think eBooks are likely to become just one of many reading options.

If anyone should be biased in favor of physical volumes, it’s Ivy Bookshop’s Ed Berlin. But while he always has a paper book or 10 on his bedside table, he also reads electronic books on his tablet. He thinks the incursion of eBooks into publishing is comparable to the invention of television, which at the time was perceived as dooming radio.

“People today listen to the radio and they watch television and they go to the movies,” Berlin said. “They read paper books and they read digital books. They like having choices.”

Teicher said the indies also have benefited from the “shop local” movement.

“Tens of millions of American consumers are making decisions every day to patronize locally owned businesses,” he said. “They get it that the dollars they spend locally go further because they are invested in their communities.”

That choice became easier in recent years once publishers modernized their distribution systems to compete with Amazon, which seemingly could put books into customers’ hands mere seconds after they pressed the “buy” button — and offered free shipping.

“In the old days, if you walked into a bookstore and they didn’t have the book you wanted, the clerk would say, ‘I’ll get it to you in a week,’” Teicher said.

“Publishers woke up and invested tens of millions of dollars into upgrading their distribution systems, and now we can get virtually any book you want anywhere in the country within 24 to 48 hours. That’s become a necessity in today’s world.”

The indies also received a boost about three years ago when the cost to buy digital books began rising, the result of an ugly and very public dispute between Amazon and the publishers over who had the right to set prices for this format. According to news accounts, Amazon wanted to discount electronic books to drive sales of its Kindle e-reader, which was introduced in 2007. But the publishers argued that it cost them almost as much to produce a digital book as a physical one, so the prices of both should be comparable.

In November 2014, the publishers prevailed. Digital books gradually became more expensive and now occasionally eclipse their hardcover and paperback equivalents on Amazon. As a result, customers have less incentive to prefer the digital format.

Still, that doesn’t explain why customers returned to the indies, which can’t offer Amazon’s steep discounts on physical books. To compensate, brick-and-mortar stores have adopted other strategies to narrow the price gap.

For instance, Amazon charges customers a few dollars to wrap gifts purchased online. The Ivy and Greedy Reads will wrap your books for free, though Fleischaker claims that she lacks the paper-taping and bow-tying skills to make this offer much of a bargain.

Readers seeking discounts can also subscribe to Greedy Reads’ mystery series or participate in the monthly book club that Fleischaker runs showcasing under-the-radar reads. This month, she’s featuring Sayake Murata’s novel, “Convenience Store Woman” about an employee who conforms — a little too well — to Japan’s rigid work culture.

Price is nice. But the indies say what sets them apart are the ties they form to the community and their ability to make the book-buying experience personal.

For instance, Fleischaker is a huge animal lover, so dogs are welcome at book club meetings when accompanied by well-behaved owners on a leash.

“Dogs who come into the store to visit get mega-love from me,” she said. “Later, I’ll see the owner walking past my door and their dogs will start to pull them in.”

The indies also try to give back. A recent event at Greedy Reads featured food for sale by two local, women-owned restaurants while the Ivy has raised more than $1,000 this summer for the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue branch.

Berlin said that since he and his wife bought the Ivy in 2012, they have worked hard to develop alliances with area cultural organizations.

If a nationally known author is reading at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Johns Hopkins University or the Creative Alliance, chances are that the books for sale have been provided by the Ivy.

And it was Berlin who came up with the idea for the first Festival of Jewish Literature, which will be held over 11 days in November. He enlisted a dozen organizations including Center Stage, the Jewish Museum of Maryland and local synagogues to plan readings, performances and family events.

The result? The Ivy’s gross revenues have nearly doubled in seven years. And in 2016, the Berlins expanded into a second location, a Charles Village cafe and bookstore called Bird in Hand.

“Our whole business model is based on partnerships and collaborations and creating opportunities for people to read,” Ed Berlin said. “Baltimore is a city that always roots for its home team. So how can you not root for the Ivy?”

*This story has been updated to include the name of Ivy Bookshop co-owner Emma Snyder.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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