How Wichita booksellers read the future

Last year Wichita saw its biggest contraction in chain bookstores.

First came news that Michigan-based Borders Group would close its store at 1715 N. Rock Road as part of a reorganization bankruptcy plan announced early in the year.

Several months later, Borders’ reorganization turned into a liquidation bankruptcy, and its remaining store in NewMarket Square in northwest Wichita closed.

The closings of Borders were followed in December with the closure of Barnes & Noble’s Eastgate store at Kellogg and Rock Road.

That left Wichita with one chain bookstore, Barnes & Noble in Bradley Fair in east Wichita.

The contraction wasn’t necessarily reason to celebrate for the owners of three of Wichita’s oldest independent bookstores: Watermark Books & Cafe, Book-A-Holic and Eighth Day Books.

Like their chain competitors, they face similar challenges – rising e-book sales, online competition and narrower margins.

But for different reasons, local booksellers are mostly upbeat about their business and their futures. They think their local ownership is a factor in their ability to survive, as is their willingness to adapt to the changing market.

Some have seen a boost from the loss of the chain stores; others are seeing success with new delivery channels and new services.

But perhaps the biggest factor in surviving and thriving a tumultuous time in bookselling is an emotional one.

Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark at 4701 E. Douglas, said her bookstore has seen a lift in bulk and corporate orders since the contraction. But still missing are strong sales of best-sellers, a piece of business that Watermark had before Barnes & Noble and Borders entered the local market in the 1990s.

“When the box stores came in, we lost the best-sellers market,” she said. Then, “they lost it to Amazon(.com).”

Watermark still sells best-sellers, but not to the degree it used to, Bagby said.

She said the market for books didn’t expand when the big bookstores came to town.

So Watermark took several steps over the years to compete, with the bookstore chains as well as discount online booksellers such as Amazon. It opened a cafe in the bookstore when it moved in 1996 to its current location, in Lincoln Heights Village, at Douglas and Oliver. Cafe sales now account for about 30 percent of Watermark’s total sales, Bagby said.

It’s also increased its emphasis on events, including hosting book clubs, partnerships with institutions such as Wichita State University and the Sedgwick County Historical Society, and hosting readings and signings by authors.

Over the next four weeks it is hosting 11 events, seven of which are readings and signings by book authors. Watermark has about 300 to 400 square feet of meeting space for events, in addition to its 5,000-square-foot store and cafe.

“All these local things … people really do support those,” Bagby said.

Nationally, Bagby thinks there has been “a real renaissance” for independent booksellers over the past couple of years.

According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent store locations grew 15.5 percent in 2011 to more than 1,900. And between January 2010 and December 2011, 74 new independent bookstores opened.

Dan Cullen of the ABA said several factors nationally are helping the growth of independent bookstores, including a “shop local” mindset in which Americans are consciously supporting local businesses more than they did in the past, as well as the contraction of chain bookstores. Cullen also said lower-cost technology has helped existing, independent booksellers remain in business by giving them ways to better manage their inventories and analyze sales data.

“Those are three solid trends that we see on a national level,” Cullen said.

So far this year, Bagby said sales at Watermark are “flat to up.” But October looks to “be a huge month” because of a number of new releases.

Flat to slightly up is how David Lovett, owner of Book-A-Holic, says his stores’ sales are this year. Book-A-Holic, which sells used books and publishers’ closeouts, operates three stores in Wichita and a 10,000-square-foot warehouse for online book sales.

Lovett said his stores have seen no effect from the contraction of chain bookstores locally. “It’s still the same as it was,” he said.

Warren Farha, owner of Eighth Day Books at 2838 E. Douglas, said his store “hasn’t felt much of a difference” because of fewer competitors locally. Sales, he said, have “been steady, not stellar.”

“The elephant in the room is Amazon,” he said. “That’s the huge rival.”

Amazon and the future

Farha’s bookstore, which he opened 24 years ago this month, is a niche bookseller, focusing mainly on new and out-of-print titles in the areas of classic literature, religion and philosophy. Because of that niche, a lot of its sales come from outside Wichita and the state. And from almost the beginning, Eighth Day has published a catalog to reach its out-of-state customers. It used to distribute catalogs two times a year, but it’s now printing them once a year.

“The expenses of that kind of outreach are pretty taxing, but we’ve made it a point to do one at least once a year since 1989,” he said. Eighth Day also has sold books online since 2001.

Watermark’s Bagby agrees with Farha regarding Amazon’s impact. But she thinks the playing field with Amazon is beginning to level, now that more states are beginning to require Amazon to collect state sales tax.

The other huge challenge facing those who sell books is the e-book, which can be read on electronic readers, tablet computers, smartphones and other devices.

Watermark and Book-A-Holic are now selling e-books in addition to paper books because that’s what their customers expect. The question that none of them can answer is how quickly and how much the e-book market will grow.

Lovett of Book-A-Holic thinks that after several years of sales increases, e-books will plateau to a certain level of readership alongside paper books. Eighth Day’s Farha thinks e-books could eventually become the dominant medium for consuming books. “I think younger people who have been immersed in the digital culture … will read digitally, ” he said.

But Farha is circumspect about the future because he didn’t get into bookselling for the sake of making a lot of money. “I planned to do it as a lifetime vocation when I opened it,” he said. “I had no idea whether it would work, but at the time that wasn’t the major consideration. It was what I saw as the delight of books. That was the engine behind the store.”

Bagby of Watermark said her plans for the future are rooted in how she’s run her bookstore since it opened in 1977.

“We just figure it out,” she said. “We want to stay vital to the community, manage our inventory to sales, have the right mix of events, book clubs and traffic, being as smart as we can be about the business.”