How this Howard bookstore owner tries to survive in the age of Amazon

Bookstores represent different things for different people. For some, it’s a place to take pictures for posting on Instagram. For Erin Matthews, it’s a sanctuary.

Matthews has maintained an infatuation with books since childhood. She has vivid memories of getting detention in fourth grade for reading “The Westing Game” instead of doing math problems. And, her infatuation was so intense that at the age of 25, she became the owner of Books With A Past.

“I totally did it by the seat of my pants,” said the 34-year-old, who purchased the Glenwood store from its retiring owners.

Since taking ownership, the bookstore, which specializes in genre fiction (literary classics, mystery and romance novels) and selling knickknacks, has become a haven for Potterheads, animal-lovers and community outreach.

“We carry things that...go along with our brand and our beliefs,” Matthews said. “[That] means that we get things that are unique.”

The knickknacks, usually made by Maryland women business owners, include candles inspired by banned books with “smoked pine and parchment” scent, inspired by “Fahrenheit 451” and pendants that display quotes from Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling and A.A. Milne.

But despite the store’s offerings, it still struggles. It’s not because of competition between other local bookstores. And it’s not because of the recently opened Barnes & Noble in Columbia Mall. It’s because of Amazon, the “online empire that shall not be named,” as Matthews sort-of jokingly refers to it.

Amazon is said to have more than 100 million global subscribers, according to a memo its founder Jeffrey P. Bezos sent shareholders. The giant in 2016 accounted for 43 percent of U.S. digital retail sales, according to Slice Intelligence.

Amazon is said to have displaced 637,000 retail jobs in 2016, according to a study conducted by American Booksellers Association and Civic Economics. A study conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that 55 percent of potential shoppers go directly to Amazon, skipping search engines entirely. And the company in 2015 sold $55.6 billion worth of retail while avoiding $704 million in sales taxes, according to “Amazon and Empty Storefronts,” a study conducted by ABA and CE.

“[Amazon is] taking over the world,” Matthews said of the tech company, which declined to comment for this story.

Matthews, during an October interview, surmised that Amazon is destroying her business by enabling would-be customers to altogether skip her bookstores to buy products at a significantly lower price. Or worse, they go to her store, browse the curated collection and buy the books from Amazon on their smartphones while standing in the store, Matthews said.

She can’t compete with that.

“I have provided the opportunity for you to discover this book. And then, you have taken that money and given it to somebody else. I have to keep my lights on,” said Matthews. “If you find it here, buy it here.”

In an attempt to lovingly scold “showrooming customers,” Matthews has in her Glenwood store an Amazon Swear Jar for those who refer to “the online empire that shall not be named.”

(The cash, which in October amounted to $22, went to “local causes that Amazon does not support," the jar reads.)

But not all local bookstores are struggling. In fact, some argue they are in the midst of a renaissance.

In 2018, the American Booksellers Association 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 Strand, an acclaimed independent bookstore with seven storefronts throughout Manhattan, is at the forefront of this renaissance, Matthews said. Its high ceilings and mentions in films, novels and music makes its primary store in the East Village a haven for tourists and passers-by. And in Baltimore City, the owner of Greedy Reads has found an enthusiastic shopper-base in Fells Point.

But Matthews has not experienced this renaissance because her stores are in Howard, a suburb that lacks the foot traffic of Baltimore City and Manhattan, she said.

Even former bookstore giant Barnes & Noble is not enveloped in the so-called renaissance. The struggling chain’s stock price in 2006 had an all-time high of $30.30. It now hovers around $6.20— 2 cents lower than when it opened in 1993.

In attempt to keep with the times, Barnes & Noble is opening sleeker and smaller stores with bright lights, tan hardwood floors and a smaller selection of books. Chairs and “community” tables with outlets are placed throughout the store to create a place for people to hang out.

And, for Matthews, the presence of this new Barnes & Noble, including one in Columbia, is a great thing as it helps readers find authors that are popular and current. On the other end, she supplies the backlog of these authors to new readers.

But Barnes & Nobel’s push for revival might not be enough as half of print and digital book sales come from Amazon, according to industry analysts.

Amazon has since 2015 opened 16 brick-and-mortar bookstores to bring a face to its digital empire. Its Bethesda location has roughly 6,000-square-feet and 3,700 titles.

But these stores, Matthews argues, do not house the authentic and genuine nature of independent bookstores. Amazon won’t host themed birthday parties for children who live in the area or showcase “hidden talents” in the literary realm, Matthews said.

“Amazon stocks their stores based on data. Not based on people,” she said.

For Matthews, finding and recommending books to patrons is not a chore— its a pleasure. Don’t like reading? No problem. Just tell her your favorite movie and she can find an audiobook tailored to your tastes. (Audible, the digital audiobook outlet owned by Amazon, can’t do that, Matthews said.)

Do you love Danielle Steele novels? Matthews will be sure to order a copy of her latest release, just in case you want to buy it. That definitely won’t happen online and is unlikely to happen in their brick-and-mortar stores, Matthews said.

Need to buy a DVD or CD? She’ll probably send you to Second Edition in Columbia because of its vast collection.

Second Edition owner Kathy Byer said “people refer us often because we are one of the few that remain. We are grateful for her references.”

Books with a Past also offers customers something so different and so unique that no online book-selling company would ever be able to sell: cats.

Since last year, Matthews has had cats roaming her Glenwod store. The cat’s presence in the store is twofold. The first is that, Matthews just loves having cats around. (Matthews can’t decide which she likes more, books or cats.) And second, they are in need of a home. The cats roam the 4,200 square-foot store to charm customers into taking them home with their books.

When Matthews first started doing this, it wasn’t very planned. People would sometimes drop off stray cats found on street corners. But since September, the store has partnered with BARCS Animal Shelter to pair cats with customers.

Atticus, Matthews’s cat, named after the lead character in her favorite book, “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” sometimes comes to the bookstore to be the “spokescat” for the operation. (Her other cat, Scout, occasionally makes an appearance but he isn’t super friendly.)

Slow foot traffic is Matthews’s biggest challenge. To bring in customers, the store has beefed up its social media presence and runs academic and test-prep tutoring sessions for middle and high school students at the Glenwood location.

“[Tutoring] pays the rent in the winter when no one wants to brave the cold and buy books,” Matthews said.

The bookstore also relies on engaging with the community through events. It hosts Harry Potter birthday parties and New York Times bestselling authors such as Madeline Miller, who packed the Savage Mill store to capacity during an August reading.

But Matthews doesn’t just engage with the community to bring in traffic. She does it because its the duty of independent bookstores to give back to the community, she said.

Matthews declined to provide her revenue but said an average bookstore makes less than $250,000 in income. Highly profitable independent stores, like The Strand, make 8.8 percent in annual profit. Matthews makes less than 5 percent.

Though the company it not particularly cash-rich, it employs eight people who live in Howard County and are yearning to donate their time and skills.

After floods ravaged historic Ellicott City in May, the store packed five carloads of food and supplies to donate to a food bank that was helping displaced shopkeepers and homeowners.

“We don’t always have the money to donate but we certainly can donate our space and our time,” she said.

This community engagement outside the store replicates itself within. Part of giving back is empowering esidents to read. Matthews wants to create a store for to want to “come in, find a book and sit and read,” she said. “Building readers is in our long term interest.”

For Matthews, the long hours and collaborating with Maryland-based nonprofits is rewarding and worth the sacrifice because she gets to live her childhood dream: working for herself, around cats and with books.

Owning a bookstore “is part of my life-term goals,” Matthews said. “It’s been an adventure. It’s been fun.”

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