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City bookstores persist in the face of electronic market

Sellers say the intimacy of local bookstores will remain appealing despite alternatives like e-books

When one thinks of bookstores today, it’s easy to draw parallels to record shops or VHS rental stores — quaint but thoroughly outdated relics of the past. But despite an industry upturned by digital technology, Providence’s independent bookstores have continued to thrive.


A tale as old as time

Though many of Providence’s bookstores have operated for decades, the fluctuating nature of the bookstore business usually keeps it from becoming boring, owners and employees said.

“We get a lot of really cool people who come in here ­— I’d say that’s one of the coolest parts for me,” said Erin Waters, an employee at Symposium Books. “You get to talk to a lot of different personalities, people with different backgrounds.”

“The highlights are meeting all the people who come in and getting to see all the books,” said Michael Chandley, owner of used bookstore Cellar Stories.

But he also acknowledged the difficulty of staying competitive financially.

“The challenges are all the competition, especially online now. It’s a lot more difficult than it was five or 10 years ago,” Chandley said.

The competition now is “Kindlesand big mark stores,” he added. “Walmart, Costco — all of those places sell books, so the competition is really severe.”

The presence of online sellers, as well as big-name stores selling books, is a pressing fear for independent bookstores.

“The challenge is trying to price the books competitively and still be able to make some kind of money,” said Symposium employee Tony Amato. Customers “can buy books online comparatively cheaper than what they pay for at the store, even though we have really low prices,” he added.

To combat this trend, many bookstores have taken on a jack-of-all-trades approach to appeal to book lovers.

“We try to do what makes people want to shop in a local bookstore, like hosting author events and stocking local author titles, having story times for kids and giving recommendations,” wrote Books on the Square manager Jennifer Kandarian in an email to The Herald.


‘A little bit different’

Though the Symposium Books location downtown is well supported by loyal patrons, owners Scott McCullough and Anne Marie Keohane were forced to close their Thayer Street location last April because of declining profits, McCullough said. The steadily rising rent of the location and the crowds of high schoolers who would gather outside the store once school let out became increasingly problematic, until finally the location was no longer cost-effective, he added. The space is being converted into a Ben and Jerry’s that is relocating from its former spot on Meeting Street.

Despite rumors that the shop could not compete with the Brown Bookstore, McCullough said the area’s bookstores share a positive relationship.

“If a customer can’t find a book, we’ll recommend going to one of those places or give them a call sometimes to see if they have it,” he said. The bookstores in the area are “more symbiotic than competitive,” he added.

Though several students said they were unfamiliar with Symposium’s old Thayer location, others mourned its loss.

Kah Yangni ’14, a former Symposium customer who now frequents the Brown Bookstore, described the Thayer location as a “really nice, quaint place to be, kind of next to campus. … It was something a little bit different.”

Given the trend of dwindling independent bookstores nationwide, Yangni said she was particularly sad to see it go. “I would say I know some of the (Brown) Bookstore workers by name, but the dynamic is definitely different when it’s one or two guys in a shop that’s been there forever and who really know their stuff.”

“It’s going to make me sad when that doesn’t happen anymore,” she added.


Turning a new page

Despite the closure of Symposium’s Thayer location, Providence bookstore owners said the end is hardly in sight, and everyone interviewed for this article reported stable or increasing sales during the last few years.

Rod Clinton, co-owner of Books on the Square, wrote in an email to The Herald that he sees the tradition of reading as a key part of what will keep bookstores around.

“Our customers still say they prefer a physical book over an e-book,” Clinton wrote. “They find it satisfying to hold a book in their hands when they read; they do not want to have a technology intrusion between them and what the author is saying; they do not want to give or receive an e-book as a gift.”

Though predicting the future of bookstores is a difficult task, he added, books will continue to hold their own appeal — even to future generations.

“Even children who adapt easily to computers and computer games find it satisfying to hold and read a physical book,” he wrote.


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