Independent booksellers are seeing a resurgence as big box stores decline.
The creaky wooden floors are a reminder of the advanced age of Klindt’s Booksellers in The Dalles. Opened in 1870, it is the oldest bookshop in Oregon. It has been located on 2nd St. in the city’s downtown since 1893 after a fire destroyed its original home across the street.
The store has stood the test of time in a rural community experiencing rapid change. Once a blue-collar industrial town, The Dalles, the largest Oregon city along the Columbia River, is moving to a more tourism and tech-based economy.
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New breweries and cafés line the main street. On the city’s outskirts, Google is expanding a data center near the former site of a now defunct aluminum factory. A Bitcoin mining host recently opened an operation here.
Owning a brick and mortar bookstore might not seem the most viable business venture these days. Amazon is gobbling up market share with its vast online catalog. Big box bookstores are hurting as a result. Borders went bankrupt in 2011; Barnes & Noble‘s sales are declining.
But small booksellers are seeing a resurgence. As of May 2018, year-to-date sales for independent bookstores were up more than 5% over 2017, according to the American Booksellers Association.
Rural Oregon shops reflect that trend. As bookstores shutter in Portland, stores in the Dalles, Condon and Prineville are thriving. In these small towns and cities, bookstores are not only isolated enough to withstand competition from large chains like Barnes & Noble, they are also a linchpin of community life; a place to meet friends, chat, and sometimes stay for coffee and pastries.
Klindt’s Booksellers, The Dalles
Kristin Klindt and her husband Joaquin Perez took over The Dalles bookstore in 2012 after the passing of the previous owners, Klindt’s aunt and uncle, Linda and Philip Klindt. The Klindt family are the third family to own the bookstore since its beginnings, and the young couple are trying to maintain the bookstore’s tradition.
The wooden cabinets, bookshelves and floors are original. One of their main challenges is building upkeep. The roof leaks 24/7 and the lighting system needs renovation. But Klindt wouldn’t think of moving to a new building to cut costs.
“The character of the store is part of our story,” she says.
How does the business continue to stay relevant in the age of Amazon? “Our biggest thing is people are reading,” says Klindt. “People really want to come into the store and talk about the next book.”
A big part of the bookseller’s job is researching books for customers. Often people come into the store after hearing about a book they are interested in, but they don’t know the title. The bookstore employees will do the research and order the title if it is not in stock.
Owners of Klindt’s Booksellers, Joaquin Perez and Kristin Klindt
Community events are also a fixture. The store holds events for local authors and hosts a monthly book club. “We like to celebrate local authors and raise awareness of authors,” says Klindt.
Around 30-35% of revenues come from non-book items, which have better margins than the books, says Perez. Gifts such as colorful socks from Sock It To Me, a local manufacturer in Milwaukie, are popular. Bicycle bells, baby gifts are on offer, and there is a whole area dedicated to Bigfoot paraphernalia.
The store stands to benefit from new residents that are moving to the Dalles from larger metropolitan areas, such as Portland, as well as the growth in tourism. The owners hope to see increased foot traffic generated by the Blue Zones Project, a local initiative that encourages people to bike and walk more.
The Book Peddler, a bookstore in nearby White Salmon on the Washington side of the Columbia River, is benefitting from a similar growth trajectory. The town, population 2,224, was once economically depressed. But it is experiencing a revival with a new brewery, restaurants and boutiques lining the main street.
Owner Joyce Fitzsimmons, a retired school counselor, opened the store in May 2005, around the time that Amazon was expanding aggressively into online bookselling.
Joyce Fitzsimmons, owner of The Book Peddler, White Salmon
Fitzsimmons doesn’t mind Amazon. She uses the online retailer to research and find books for customers. “I don’t fight it like a lot of people do,” she says.
Her store draws on a ‘buy local’ ethic in the town and from tourists passing through. “People say they check with me first” to find a book, she says. “A lot of people want to shop locally.”
The bookstore’s focus on children’s literature works well in a town that has recently attracted young families. Fitzsimmons says she doesn’t track sales, but that the business supports itself.
Once a year, she invites first graders to choose two books they can take home. “It helps me clean out and purge. And the kids are happy.”
Rural bookstores are recognized by economic development experts as contributing to the vibrancy of local economies. “They are great gathering places,” says Anne Mitchell, a rural economic vitality program manager for Rural Development Initiatives. “They are often the one place to have public Wi-Fi. They become a public commons-type of place.”
A bookstore for the local community was the goal of the Becker family, who opened The Hub, a bookstore and coffee shop in Prineville, in 2015.
The Hub bookstore and coffee shop, Prineville
Like The Dalles, Prineville is another rural town in transition. Traditionally dependent on agriculture and ranching, the central Oregon town has recently attracted tech companies, Facebook and Apple, which have data centers in the area.
The Hub, which includes a children’s play area, couches and a pool table, is the only bookseller in town. The main mission of the business is to help people to connect, says Kiera Becker, a daughter of the owner, Kara Becker. Among community events the family holds are bingo and family movie nights.
The Hub bookstore
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Bookstores can be found in the most unexpected places in rural Oregon. The small, remote city of Condon in eastern Oregon, population 682, is where you might be surprised to find an outlet of Portland-based Powell’s Books, which claims to be the world’s largest independent bookstore.
In the back of Country Flowers, a florist, gift store and deli/café, is a small room with three rows of bookcases stocked with Powell’s books. Darla Seale, who has owned the business on Condon’s main street for 30 years, says Mike Powell, owner of Powell’s, was looking to buy a vacation home in the area and wanted to sell books in an established business in town. Seale came to a mutual agreement with Powell to sell the books in her store.
Country Flowers, Condon
For more than 20 years now, Seale has been selling a mix of new and used titles that originate from Powell’s warehouse in northwest Portland. It costs her nothing to sell the items and she earns 10% on each sale.
Seale, who was busy making sandwiches for customers in a small kitchen in the back of the store during a recent lunch hour, doesn’t list the books as her biggest revenue generator; but she wouldn’t be without the Powell’s connection. “We are delighted to have them,” she says of the books.
The Powell’s Books nook in the Country Flowers store, Condon
Country Flowers has seen many changes over the years. It started out as a florist; then Seale diversified by opening a soda fountain and selling gifts. Later she started a deli. The books are just another part of her eclectic business.
She is happy to offer locals access to books. “We are so far away from everything. You need to offer variety,” she says.
Her customers are a mix of locals and tourists passing through. She has had customers from Europe, Asia and Australia come into the store on their way to visit the nearby Painted Hills.
Darla Seale, owner of Country Flowers
She is always seeking to stock more children’s books, which are sought after by young, educated families in the area. She also wants to stock more audio books, which she says are suited to rural residents who spend a lot of time in their cars commuting long distances. She makes sure to stock books by local authors.
Back in The Dalles, Klindt says the owners will not lower their book prices to compete with Amazon. Instead they offer alternatives to retain customers, such as loyalty cards.
The online retailer’s pricing tactics may end up benefitting bookstores as publishers turn their support back to brick and mortar. “We aren’t huge money makers, but publishers understand the value of bookstores,” Klindt says.
So do residents and visitors in small town Oregon.
“We feel very glad that people love holding a book,” says Klindt.
Photos: Kim Moore
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