Constant Change – Columbia Books


January 24, 2003 marked the end of an era in Columbia, MO with the closing of Nowell’s. The Nowell brothers came home from the Civil War, wanting something different than farming, so in 1876 they opened Nowell’s Grocery Store, just up the street from where my bookstore is now located. Over the years this little store changed and grew, as did the generations of the Nowell family owning the operation. In the early 1960’s the store (in a much larger location) burned to the ground, and it re-opened in a giant tent while the new and improved store was built. Nowell’s was the first grocery store in town to have a multiplicity of services besides basic groceries, and Nowell’s was the first store in town to use scanners. At one time Nowell’s had two warehouse stores and 3 stores in Columbia and 4 more in surrounding communities. They were successful, innovative and interesting places to shop. Walmart opened a supercenter, and then Hyvee came to town and the fourth Jack Nowell closed the stores for good last month. And now I must purchase my groceries from one of the several corporate-owned chain stores—fortunately I do not have to stoop to Walmart.

One thing I have learned in the years Columbia Books has been open (since October 1, 1977) is never to take anything for granted. Nothing stays the same in the book business, constant change is inevitable, and just about the time you think you have your business model in place is the time you will get blindsided by any variety of unknown circumstances.

To survive and thrive in the book business one must have the extreme flexibility of a ballet dancer, the capacity to re-invent oneself repeatedly, tenacity, determination, stubbornness, and a certain amount of plain old dumb luck. My degree in Library and Information Science combined a program of rare book courses under the late Dr. Helmutt Lehmann-Haupt, and a series of courses in library automated systems. This was in the 1970’s when library automation was in its infancy. My vision was to be surrounded by old and rare books, utilizing the new methods of research through computers…….needless to say reality has been a somewhat different creature, involving such details as providing a living for myself and two children—and insurance on their vehicles as well as college tuition.

In the mid-1980’s the only bookstore in downtown Columbia selling new books moved out to the large Mall. New books slowly became a part of my operation, over the next 15 years growing to become a viable business itself with sales reps calling regularly, and author events part of the venue.

In 1992 the first computer was purchased to help manage the paperwork, catalog the books, etc. In 1994 Richard Weatherford started an internet service called Interloc, which he felt would revolutionize the op book business via the internet. I was one of those he called to take the plunge, and since we were never able to keep on top of the catalog mailings, this seemed to be a logical evolution.

Those early days of internet selling were truly amazing; the books flew out the door and the main challenge was to type in enough titles to keep ahead of what was selling. The first computer was replaced with a bigger faster model, and then a second computer was added so we could type faster. Abebooks started up, Bibliofind was born and the databases grew like topsy as the big scramble began with everyone trying to get online. Amazon dipped its toe in the waters of used books in an effort to tap into another market….and the rest is history as they say.

Big Corporate Entities have taken much of the book market, both B & M and online as well, making it a real challenge to survive and to maintain integrity and identity as individual booksellers. Between 1985-2000, 34% of the independent bookstores in this country closed, largely due to the invasion of B&N and Borders, and the domination of the internet by Amazon. Lengthy litigation on the part of the American Booksellers’ Association leveled the playing field as far as publisher pricing of books, but it came too late for all too many stores both small and large. Many communities and major cities in this country have no independent stores left. One of my sales reps told me about four years ago he had only a dozen accounts left in the entire state of Texas.

Before the advent of the internet, the chain stores for the most part were unaware of the parallel world of used, op, and rare bookselling which had co-existed for some 500 years. Book buyers and collectors shopped both sides of the book world to satisfy their desires.

The internet revolutionized this. Amazon discovered the link to the seemingly infinite world of used and op books on the internet and began the stampede of the Corporate Bodies to take over and control yet another segment of the market. Independently owned databases and websites disappeared rapidly as Amazon, B&N and Borders and, later, Alibris jockeyed for dominance, and book buyers found they could tap into seemingly endless listings of books online without having to expend the time and energy visiting and browsing their local bookshops.

Another undocumented wave of bookstore closings is happening with the decline of walk-in traffic. B&M bookstores not actively involved with the internet are few and far between. Many booksellers have only internet presences with no visible storefronts. Bookseller catalogs are almost a thing of the past, as online listings make printed catalogs instantly obsolete. Local and regional book fairs are dying out due to lack of attendance. Book scouts and charities become instant booksellers online, making competition for the good books almost like a feeding frenzy in shark-infested waters.

The internet is tailor-made to dovetail almost perfectly with bookselling; the problem is how to avoid the tenacles of Corporations who are invested in selling units of products, to work within their system in such a way as to maintain individuality and integrity, how to thrive as professional booksellers, how to withstand the Walmart pressuring of more is better, cheaper is best, quality is irrelevant.
At the moment A’s are duking it out for internet dominance, their main concern being the bottom line of profitablity as far as selling units of product: more is better, cheaper is best, quality is virtually irrelevant. The first generation independently owned databases are gone, very few of the second generation databases are still around, but a third generation is now upon the horizon, with the emphasis being on quality, customer service, product integrity, individuality, making the whole process come full circle. They lack the size and clout of their larger counterparts, but they take into account the idiosyncratic nature of book buyers and collectors that ultimately is the driving force behind the used and rare book world.

The browsing process is an integral part of the buying process for readers and collectors, and booksellers who can adapt the internet to recreate this “feel” for their online customers will survive and thrive over the long haul. The internet never closes—just crashes from time to time–and bad weather outside is a positive factor; readers and collectors thrive on serendipity, which translates into personalization, quality, integrity, and knowledge on the part of the bookseller being key factors—-once again moving full circle.

Columbia Books has a server now, with the capacity to host its own website, several workstations. I list online with Abebooks, Alibris, Amazon, Antiqbooks, Barnes and Noble, Bibliodirect, and the ABAA/ILAB database. By using the Bookrouter service I am able to customize and tweak my listings to “fit” each database. I have 27,000 titles online, but not all of them are on all of the sites. Barnes and Noble has driven the regional chain store out of the Big Mall here and they in turn have located across the street from my store and are actively working to completely take over my market group. The internet keeps my store open and viable because they cannot touch what I do there. The possibilities are almost infinite: ILAB has had successful virtual book fairs, which means I can “show” my books without having to pack them up and wear out my body, the newer databases are so much more personal, the Bookrouter service is beta testing features to make websites better, easier, more personalized and much more readily accessible, my walk-in customers can check out my inventory at 2 am……I have thought about a new greeting on my phone machine to say “Columbia Books, we never close…” which, because of the internet, is indeed the case.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website