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The Changing Book Biz
--By Scott Nicholson

(This is excerpted from an article I wrote on The Book Warehouse, a local independent store celebrating its fifth anniversary. Owner Alan Brown muses on the state of the business in an era when the chains are tightening their stranglehold, the web offers tons of free reading material, and even books themselves are in a state of flux)

No one knows how many millions of words have been carried out the door of Boone, NC’s The Book Warehouse, but after five years in business, store owner Alan Brown plans to stick around for many more millions.

"The ones that survive this Darwinian selection are those which have evolved competent defenses to allow them to remain competitive," says Brown. "This mainly focuses on their ability to fully comprehend what their community wants in the way of books and provide it for them.

"Sometimes superstores are too inflexible and are impeded by their own bureaucracies to be able to respond to changing market needs in an quick and efficient way. An independent bookseller, when he wants to try something new, does not have to write a proposal and send it through the corporate labyrinth until months down the road the approval is finally given to go ahead with the idea. He can change something in a day. Superstores for the most part carry what they are told to carry from corporate headquarters."

Brown is motivated by more than just economic success, though. He is in the business of expanding minds, improving education, and promoting free thought, as well as providing entertainment.

"Independent bookstores are an indispensable part of our democratic process," Brown says. "They provide for an environment in which a myriad of ideas and opinions can be circulated as opposed to just those for which there is a commercial market. Superstores tend to precipitate a homogenization of culture, eschewing books which don't meet the bottom line, whereas independents tend to be more ideological and motivated by things other than just pure profit. Independents also tend to give much more to the community as the owners tend to live there and raise their families there so they have more of a stake in their community's future."

The state of literature might be as solid as its ever been as book sales continue to climb steadily, but books face plenty of competition in the technological age. DVDs, laser discs, videos, computer games, and plenty of material on the Internet are also vying for people’s time and attention. Even the very nature of books is rapidly changing.

"Bookselling is undergoing some dramatic upheavals as new technological advances change the ways in which books are manufactured, distributed, and sold," says Brown. "The consumer has a myriad of options on how to buy books with the proliferation of online companies like Amazon and Our store has stayed competitive by having a very good idea of what people want to buy and then providing it for them at an economical price."

While many are predicting the rapid demise of the paper book, Brown feels that e-books and Internet material will never provide the experience that the reader wants. While he says that e-books might be good for obtaining or looking up information, the screen will never provide quite the same comfort and escape.

"I feel that there will always be books because it is an invention which cannot really be improved upon," he says. "Technology is good most of the time in the ways that it helps to make medical advances and improves upon the manufacturing and distribution of goods, and the ability to perform daily tasks in more efficient ways, but it is not always better. The book is a complete invention. Printing advances can make it easier and more economical to print books, transportation improvements can get books to the consumer quicker, and improvements in graphics software can make books more attractive, but their intrinsic structure is perfect the way that it is."

-Copyright 2000 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission.

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