Include locals in book-buying budget

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Bookstore expands in Mystic!

Front page headline? Alas, no.

The ballooning, in October, of Bank Square Books - from 3,000 to 4,800 square feet - didn't rise to that level. Nor did the opening of the Monte Cristo bookstore in New London, back in December of 2012. Both events, however, were big news for booklovers who have witnessed with growing dismay the steady demise of independent bookstores. As recently as two decades ago, there were more than 4,000 independents nationwide, a number that had dwindled to 2,400 by 2001 and then slid again to 1,900 by 2011.

The popularity of e-books and online retailers such as Amazon, with their shop-from-home convenience and low prices, are only the latest reasons for diminishing independents. Before that, the competition from big-box chains, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, forced many an independent to shut its doors. But, lately, not even the mega-stores have been immune from online competition. Borders filed for bankruptcy three years ago, after closing 600-plus stores, and Barnes & Noble has reported sagging sales and decreased revenue.

Some local bookstores are working hard to buck that downward spiral.

"I think there's really a strong market here - a lot of book clubs, a well-educated community," says Annie Philbrick, who, with two partners, bought Bank Square Books in June of 2006, when its previous owner moved out of state. "And I think it's the customer service we provide that online can't do. People spend a lot of time online, and I think they just want to go into a bookstore."

Christopher Jones and Gina Holmes counted on that impulse - and the fundraiser that amassed $10,000 in start-up money - when they launched Monte Cristo Books. The impulse to help a fellow bookseller factored into the launch, as well: Bank Square Books donated some book shelves to the newcomers. OK, it wasn't like Walmart helping Target, but how often does one see any business aiding a competitor?

The owners of Monte Cristo Books - named for the Count played 6,000-plus times by New London-born Eugene O'Neill's actor-father - never predicted, or expected, an easy breezy time of it. And Jones gave a nod to the struggle in a recent bookstore blog: "We have many obligations as a business including rent, utilities, taxes, inventory expense, blazzy-blah," he wrote. "It leaves us left with scraps. We didn't start a bookstore to make a million dollars after all. To make it on our shoestring budget, to make it 14 months? That's a real accomplishment we are proud of."

Both Bank Square and Monte Cristo offer events and services designed to attract readers. Book signings, author lunches, special orders, and suggestions from people who know, and who love, books - the personal touches that online browsing can't provide.

It helps that the acknowledged book-buying demographic (ages 45 to 64, married, good income, college graduate) describes many in our area. Book lovers love to meander along bookshelves, to peruse titles, to happen upon a favorite author or discover a new one, to feel the tactile heft of a book.

Just ask The Book Barn in Niantic, a trio of stores that sell "gently used books" and - between the Main Barn and its Midtown and Downtown adjuncts - boast a stock of nearly 500,000 volumes. They've been selling books for more than a quarter-century and draw customers from great distances.

Such successes are reason for optimism about the future of books and bookstores hereabouts. Reading is, indeed, alive and well on Connecticut's eastern shore. Not long ago, Monte Cristo Books taped up signs enumerating a few tongue-in-cheek advantages offered by books: No batteries needed. Airplane friendly. Cheap to replace. Never need to call tech support. Those advantages pair nicely with the book-in-hand benefits.

So pick a subject, any subject. Buy a book. And read all about it.

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