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The Book Haven in Auburn enters its last chapter

Competition with e-readers part of the reason for shutting down
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Shelle Parsons had known for a year that her bookstore’s closure loomed on the horizon, but that didn’t make it any easier to put up a sign outside the Gold Country Mall announcing it.

“It was a pretty rough day,” Parsons said.

Parsons put the sign up on Black Friday, and went on to have one of her better weekends in recent years – however, compared to “the good days” before the recession, it was just average, she said.

Her store, The Book Haven at 884 Lincoln Way, never really recovered after seeing its sales diminish by about 30 percent when the Kindle was flying off shelves two years ago during the holiday season, Parsons said. She plans to close its doors for good on Dec. 31 and is offering 20 percent off an entire purchase of five or more items.

It’s the second bookstore closure in Auburn this year as A Book Exchange on Highway 49 also shut down its brick-and-mortar operation. Still standing are Winston Smith Books, at 933 Lincoln Way which features a collection of 70,000 books, and the volunteer-run Used Book Sale & Boutique in the Raley’s shopping center.

 “A lot of small businesses are doing worse off than me. I know business owners who are in debt, and I don’t want to be,” she said. “I would say the economy affected me somewhat and obviously the Kindle, e-readers and downloading are becoming a commonplace way for people to order books.

“People still buy books, but they buy less of them because they have some of them on the Kindle or they downloaded them. … It’s just enough to take that margin away so that you’re struggling because your expenses aren’t going to change.”

Retail vacancy rates continue to be “pretty low” in Auburn, and The Book Haven’s closing is emblematic of an adapt-or-else trend that has determined the fate of businesses amid the recovery from the recession, City Manager Bob Richardson said.

“This is what I am seeing throughout the community,” Richardson said. “There are businesses that have really done tremendous turnarounds and are flourishing but they have all met vastly new challenges the last four years than they have ever had to deal with probably in the last 20.

“And some of these businesses have developed ways to adapt and to thrive and others just have not been able to make that transition, and I think that is a perfect example.”

Parsons said she had exhausted her options.

Winston Smith Books, which opened in 2005, experienced the same 30 percent decrease in holiday sales from 2009 to 2010, but has since been able to get back to the level it was at before the e-reader boom thanks to altering its strategies, said store co-owner James Van Eaton.

E-readers most significantly affected sales of paperbacks, mystery, romance and popular fiction – the bread-and-butter genres that were the easiest to stock and had the highest markup, he said.

Income from those sales allowed Winston Smith Books to purchase the less popular, more unique titles that are part of the reason it maintains a healthy out-of-town customer base, Van Eaton said.

“Now that that has taken away that business, we have had to focus on other things and it means paying more and ranging further to find more, and it means waiting longer to get certain titles,” he said. “I used to get James Patterson titles three weeks out, and now I’m three or four books back.”

Basically, the store’s new strategy boils down to “trying to do everything they can’t” – they being e-books – whether it’s stocking books that have elaborate dust covers on the outside and detailed maps, diagrams and illustrations on the inside, or finding that one book in a popular series that seems impossible to find on an e-reader, Van Eaton said.

In 2011, the number of adults owning an e-reader or a tablet computer experienced little growth from late spring into the fall, but that quickly changed in the holiday season when the number of adults owning at least one of the devices jumped from 18 percent in December to 29 percent in January, according to a study.

The study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found the share of adults who owned e-readers nearly doubled from 10 percent to 19 percent during that time, and the share of tablet owners saw the same increase.

Parsons said she made the decision to close The Book Haven in January, when she saw December’s income already start to be “eaten up.”

“I had the rest of the year to watch and see if I’m over-reacting, well no, I’m not,” she said. “We’re not making any money day after day, so I’ve had enough time to really know it’s time to close.”

Van Eaton said he wasn’t too surprised that The Book Haven is closing. He said he had spoken with Parsons about a year ago and she expressed to him that it was just supporting itself and she was trying to sell the business.

“There have always been visibility issues. We send people back and forth all the time, recommend the other store and so much of the time people would ask me, ‘Where is Book Haven? Where is the Gold Country Mall?’” he said. “And there used to be more in that building, more destination stores, and now it seems like more people don’t know about it.”

Parsons described her collection of about 15,000 books as a “used Barnes and Noble.” About 10 percent of her sales came from online purchases of physical books, she said.

Parsons used to have two employees but for the past three years she has run the store herself, sometimes with irregular hours to meet the needs of her three children – two sons aged 9 and 14 and an 11-year-old daughter.

“I’ve pretty much raised them in the bookstore,” she said.

Parsons, a former technical writer, said she plans to pursue work in the computer industry.

“Auburn has such a great community, and I really enjoyed every day that I worked here,” she said. “It’s kind of scary because no one enjoys their job every day, but I do. Eight years and I still can count on one hand the days that have dragged, and that’s pretty cool.”

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews