For independent booksellers, the environment is Darwinian

Philadelphia - The story of P.K. Sindwani and his suburban Philadelphia bookstore is a saga of the beleaguered bookselling industry: good intentions, crazy times and anyone's guess as to how things will turn out.

For nearly two decades, Sindwani had done well at his shop near Pennsylvania's Ursinus College. But in 2010, with an anchor supermarket dying next door and the industry transforming at an exasperating pace, things got so tough that the onetime accountant and lifelong book lover was planning an exit strategy.

Most anyone trying to sell printed books at a bricks-and-mortar store was sweating hard: Onetime powerhouse Borders was steaming toward bankruptcy; casual book buyers were flooding with cash they used to spend at shops, and Amazon's Kindle e-reader, a forerunner of the now-burgeoning market for tablets and e-books, was so hot it was like napalm to the dwindling independents, like Sindwani's Trappe Book Center.

"I was barely breaking even," said Sindwani, a man with eyeglasses, an MBA, and a manner of speaking that does not veer toward hyperbole.

Then came an unexpected twist, which is becoming more common these days as technology collides with tradition to turn things topsy-turvy in the book world: A landlord at a fancy new shopping center called to say he wanted Sindwani as a tenant, just months after declining his request for a lease. The reason: A Barnes & Noble deal had just gone sour. Sindwani had a rescue deal.

Today, the renamed and relocated Towne Book Center & Cafe at Providence Town Center in Collegeville, Pa., is, like other survivors, still in the game and still confronting formidable foes, such as a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit earlier this month over the pricing of e-books.

That action, which rebuked publishers for allegedly colluding to set fixed retail prices for electronic books, has been greeted with anxiety by small merchants because it means Amazon can now sell e-books for less than it paid for them. Competing booksellers fear this will give Amazon a firmer grip on what they call a monopoly over book sales.

Yet the lawsuit is only the latest in a series of challenges that have made the past five years difficult for independents.

Discounting by online booksellers, and the emergence of digital tablets and e-books, have made trips to stores less frequent. Competition from huge chains was the bogeymen before that.

"It's an industry where you don't feel secure, your head is spinning constantly," Sindwani, 53, said.

"Look at this ruling" on e-book prices, he added. "You constantly have to innovate; you constantly have to change your strategy. It's like shooting a moving target."

E-books were just one of the big issues on the minds of nearly three dozen mid-Atlantic booksellers who gathered at Sindwani's store a month ago to brainstorm survival strategies. Amazon already does not permit them to sell books for download to Kindles, while Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Android tabletmakers do. How, they wondered, could they secure a bigger share of e-book sales moving forward?

They also griped about a growing practice known as showrooming, in which people visit stores only to browse for what they later download to tablets or buy online.

The merchants and their trade group, the American Booksellers Association, are working on these problems, hopeful they will find a way to strike back. "Anybody that's left now," said Sindwani, "we're fighters."

The ABA, based in New York state, negotiated a contract with Google two years ago allowing independents to sell e-books on their websites for download to most digital devices except the Kindle. That contract expires at year's end, and Google declined to renegotiate. The ABA's chief executive spent last week at the London Book Fair searching for new e-book partners.

Two years ago, there were few options other than Google Books, said Oren Teicher, CEO of the trade group. Today, however, there are more.

"We're going to have an embarrassment of riches to choose from in figuring out who might be the best e-book partner for us," Teicher said.

On a brighter note, he said, the pace of independent booksellers going out of business has slowed, and apparently stabilized, and the survivors have become savvier about how to make money in a new way.

The Borders bankruptcy in early 2011, itself a casualty of online and digital competition, has funneled some business back to small merchants. And as Barnes & Noble a few years ago created a wing for toys, the little guys are diversifying their merchandise mix, too.

"This is a tough business; we're selling a product that's available in lots of other places," Teicher said. "But there is an enormous amount of creativity and entrepreneurship, in which people like P.K. are figuring out how to adapt and change and do things differently, and managing to make it work."


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