In Traverse City, indie bookstores succeed despite the odds

Oct 3, 2014

Landmark Books owner Paul Stebleton

In the age of Amazon, bookstores are a dying breed – unable to compete with online retail and the popularity of e-readers. Or at least that’s been the accepted narrative in the book business over the last few years.

In Traverse City, there are a couple of bookstores trying to buck that trend.

Brilliant Books on Traverse City’s Front Street feels like a throwback to bookstores past. Jazz music is piped softly through overhead speakers. The wooden floor creaks underfoot as you walk past plush leather sofas and neatly arranged aisles of hardcovers.

Owner Peter Makin is a former stockbroker and marketing man who got into the book business at precisely the worst possible time.

“It was 2007, we were about to enter a recession, Amazon had just come out with the Kindle (and) bookstores were absolutely dying,” said Makin. “If you ever wanted a challenge in life, that would be one.”

Many small booksellers were going out of business at that time, according to the non-profit American Booksellers Association. The organization’s membership dropped to an all-time low in 2009 – when the country was in a recession and Amazon and e-readers were gobbling up market share – but it has bounced back 70 percent in the last four years.

Peter Makin says Brilliant Books fits that trend. He’s already outpaced last year’s sales by 20 percent. He says many small booksellers see Amazon as a Goliath to be slain – but that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Anyone can shop online from the comfort of their own home … and you can conveniently buy anything that you wish to buy,” said Makin. “There has to be a valuable, tangible experience that you give them. So, coming into the store, it has to be comfortable, cozy … the ambience has to be right.”

Brilliant Books has found a niche in part by competing with Amazon on its own turf. It does much of its business online and has a 15,000-member email list.

Makin says he’d never be able to compete with Amazon on price. But what he can do is apply the same customer-first philosophy to online business that customers look for in the brick-and-mortar world.

Landmark Books on the west side of town is in some ways the opposite of Brilliant Books. Located inside Building 50 – the historic site of the old Traverse City State Hospital – the place is a bit of a hobbit hole. It’s only about 300 square feet and its narrow aisles are filled floor to ceiling with books.

Landmark owner Paul Stebleton celebrated his first anniversary in Building 50 last week.

“So far, it’s working out really well,” said Stebleton. “We’re in a historic building, which is the perfect location for an old bookstore. In the wintertime, it’s a wonderful place to come and visit because you’re out of the elements.”

Stebleton says the arrival of online booksellers like Amazon caused a big shift in the business but so did the disappearance of many large, national book chains – like Borders – and that phenomenon has helped smaller stores like his.

Landmark Books has found its niche in doing things no other bookstore does anymore. If you have an old edition that you think may be worth something, they’ll appraise it for you. If you’re building a custom library in your home, they’ll help you get set up.

“You have to follow the trends,” said Stebleton. “You have to follow people’s interests and deliver a product that’s a high-quality product.”

E-readers have also been a hot trend in bookselling – or at least they were. There is mounting evidence that the e-reader phenomenon has slowed down considerably.

Forrester Research predicts sales of e-readers will fall from a high of 25 million in 2012 to just 7 million in 2017.

Some of that drop-off could be attributed to the rise of smartphones and tablets. But Paul Stebleton believes it has a lot to do with a return to the familiar feel of paper.

“Honestly, there’s still enough people in this world that enjoy books,” he said. “They love the smell of books. They love that tactile feel. They love holding it in their hand.”