Where have all the bookstores gone?

Frayed book spines with faded print protrude from the homey, white shelves of the Book Bank on upper King Street in Old Town, one of just three nonspecialty bookstores left in the city. It’s a business that depends on the past to succeed in the present, and like its counterparts, has an uncertain future.

Niche shops like Hooray For Books (children’s literature) and Pauline’s Books and Media (Christian literature) have a time and a place. But since Books-A-Million left the city last year, the Book Bank, Already Read Used Books, and Barnes and Noble are the only booksellers where customers can find Ernest Hemingway under the same roof as David Brooks, Gertrude Stein or Jerry Followell.

The Book Bank and Already Read sell mostly used books, including collectible and rare works, unlike their big box counterpart at Potomac Yard, Barnes and Noble. But Alexandria’s independent bookstores are actually thriving while national chains fight for survival.

The space at Already Used Used books is overflowing with literature, but deceptively organized. (David Sachs)

“In this economy, second-hand is better,” said Rachel Baker, owner of the Book Bank at 1510 King St. “As the economy gets worse, people want to spend less on everything.”

Some brick-and-mortar bookstores, like the recently failed Borders, have faltered with the rise of online shopping and e-readers. The Washington area, considered one of the most educated regions in the country, also is one of the most click-happy when it comes to shopping online. Amazon.com considers Alexandria and its neighbors its No. 1 customers.

“We have a love-hate relationship with Amazon,” said Diane Wilson, co-owner of Already Read Used Books at 2501 Duke St.

Wilson and her partner Kenneth Mahnken use Amazon’s website to sell books locally and across the country. How else would somebody find the out-of-print “Pyramid Principle” by Barbara Minto? With a price tag of $100 for the rarity, Wilson calls it a “rent-paying” book. But the same website that boosts her sales steals away walk-in customers with its online convenience and popular Kindle e-reader, which does away with paper books altogether.

The quaint shelves of the Book Bank offer an experience impossible to replicate online. (David Sachs)

Not that her store is struggling; neither is Baker’s Book Bank. Business is relatively rosy for both indie shops and even better since Books-A-Million closed its doors. Part of the reason is that in the bookselling business, apparently cooperation — not competition — is good for business.

“We all work together,” said Baker. “I send people to Already Read Used Books and to Barnes and Noble if we don’t have what the customer is looking for.”

A bearded man browsing the deceptively organized shelves takes 20 minutes to check out at the cash register, chatting with Wilson and Mahnken as he uses store credit to buy a George Carlin paperback, among others. Walk-in customers like these — Wilson calls them “her bosses” — make or break brick-and-mortar, and they also make it worth the shop owners’ while.

“They pay the rent. We could just run the store online and not have the overhead but it’s not as fun,” said Mahnken. “You don’t have the interchange like we just had at a Barnes and Noble. We have some of the most fabulous discussions in here, to the point that we’ll start talking and we don’t stop.”

Wilson and Mahnken are confident the print medium will survive, but Baker not so much. Though she loves the smell and touch of a book, and makes a living off of it, “good things can come from e-readers,” Baker said. “It’s just a different experience. It’s more about fear of change than anything.

“But what I really love about books is what’s in them — the ideas. What counts is what’s inside.”

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Alexandria Times Staff

(6) Readers Comments

  1. I recently reached out to Politics and Prose to see if they were interested in locating a second store in Alexandria. They said we would have to be added to a long list of communnities who would love to have a Politics and Prose in their neighborhood. We need to recruit an independent bookstore to Old Town or Del Ray, because the health of our communities would be greatly strengthened by a bookstore. I love browsing at the Book Bank, but we need a good source for new books as well.

  2. Yay for us bookstores! I agree about needing a bookstore with new books. If I could, I would love to have a section for new books, but we have so little space as it is!

  3. I am certainly not afraid of change – but I still like to hold the book, and feel the pages. An E-Reader is the last transition I want to make. In my community, there is only four bookstores left, 3 of them are independent and have survived the ‘E’ trade – because of the personal touch, the ability to know the customer and make recommendations. By the way I like Farmer’s Markets too.

  4. Well, I have to say that I love my e-Reader… and I absolutely adore hard copy books, Hardback and Paperback. There is a place for all, in my opinion. We didn’t give up bookstores because libraries were available nor did we give up libraries when there was a bookstore. I am just grateful when people love to read. And thank goodness for customer service. I have watched independent stores in action and know that they get more customers by sending people to other places. No one can carry everything. Also…for many of us, Amazon is great if you know what you want, but you can’t browse like you can in a bookstore which is half the fun. And Amazon doesn’t engage you in a conversation where you can “meet” new authors. I say Hooray for bookstores…and libraries.

  5. I wish old town had a new books book store, in addition to the used book stores as I love to read. One thing I noticed about the used book stores is that I could find old books, classics, and history books. I don’t do that automated thing, not because I don’t want to. It’s just that I don’t think about it. I do spend my fair share of time on Amazon, as sometimes I get tired of brick and mortar merchant bad attitude.

  6. I hate to betray my ignorance, but who is “Jerry Followell”?

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