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.
“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.
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.”