Zoe Rudolph, 9, reads with her mother, Kristi Rudolph, at Poor Richard’s.

Covered Treasures owner Tommie Plank pauses her conversation during a lull on a January afternoon to ring up a customer at the Monument bookstore.

The two women make idle chat during the transaction, and the conversation ends on a familiar note for Plank: “It’s my dream some day to own a bookstore like this,” the customer tells her on her way out the door.

“I get that almost every week,” Plank said. “People love just being in a bookstore and being around people who like to talk about books.”

In today’s delivery economy, when an Amazon package can travel from warehouse to doorstep within a matter of hours, independent bookstores are a refuge for technology holdouts. By the end of 2019, Covered Treasures’ sales had risen nearly 8 percent from the previous year, Plank said.

“I think it says something about a community in people’s minds [if] the community as a whole can support an independent bookstore,” she said.

Since bottoming out in 2009, the number of independent booksellers nationwide has grown by about 35 percent, according to a December 2019 report from Minnesota Public Radio. There are now more than 1,900 independent booksellers across the country, who together operate more than 2,500 stores, MPR reported.

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“Certainly the notion that everybody was going to be reading off computers, I think, was the same issue around streaming and movie theaters,” said Richard Skorman, who owns Poor Richard’s Books & Gifts on North Tejon Street with his wife, Patricia Seator. “People still like to go to movies. They like the experience of being in a crowd laughing, and I think it’s similar with bookstores. There’s just a lot of people that like the experience of being in a place with other people who have the same interests.”

‘DEMOCRATIZED PRICES’

The uptick in independent booksellers doesn’t always translate to profit, however. Jim Ciletti, who owns Hooked on Books with his wife, Mary, in downtown Colorado Springs, said he has seen a decline in both online and in-store sales over the past four years.

“Four years ago, we did $32,000 [in sales] on the internet,” he said. “We’re lucky if we do $10,000 now.”

This doesn’t mean fewer people are reading, Ciletti said. Rather, it reflects a glut of competition that makes rare books more common and common books less expensive.

“There are so many more sellers out there on the internet, and that has significantly increased the availability of both scarce and common books, which in turn has democratized prices,” Ciletti said. “In other words, our drop in growth sales is a reflection not just of less sales, but also the cost of books being purchased from us.”

New book sales have increased significantly at Poor Richard’s over the past decade, Skorman said, while used books have remained steady.

“New books have become a huge growth part of our business, and we definitely cultivate it,” Skorman said. “We put them in the front of the store facing forward, where customers can see the covers.”

Gone are the days of bookstores in the style of New York City’s The Strand, which boasts on its website of “more than 18 miles” of rare and out-of-print books.

“The days of old used bookstores with miles of shelves that have everything — I think those are not as frequent as they used to be,” Skorman said. “We don’t focus on rare books as much as we focus on current, topical books and classics. Somebody can find a book that was just on The New York Times bestsellers list six months ago and get a used copy of the same book in brand-new condition.”

TECHNOLOGY SLOWS

The decline of electronic readers is a possible contributor to the surge in smaller booksellers. Once heralded as the death knell for traditional books, devices such as Kindle and Nook are suffering from a rapid drop in sales, according to a November 2019 post on the blog “Just Publishing Advice.”

In 2018, customers spent $24.96 on average for an e-reader, up from $19.50 dollars in 2017, according to Statista. The 2018 figure represented the first growth in consumer expenditure on digital readers in several years.

As the novelty of e-readers waned, Skorman noticed more of what he calls “recreational book shoppers” — customers who not only enjoy reading, but the physical experience of being in a bookstore.

“There’s a fatigue from people who spend so much time in front of computer screens. They want to have a real book in their hands and be able to turn the pages,” Skorman said. “I think there’s a certain part of the population that just doesn’t want to have the computer screens be their delivery method for reading all the time.”

The convenience of taking an e-reader on vacation, as opposed to hauling a stack of books, is hard to beat, Plank said. Still, regular readers seem to prefer the tactile experience of a paperback to a Nook or Kindle, she said.

“I think people are realizing that sometimes the satisfaction of reading a book is different when you read it on a screen. The way our minds store that information is very different,” Plank said. “The recall of material that you read on a printed page is stored in a different place in our brain than that information that we read on the screen. Your mind remembers how far in the book it was, or if it was on the left or right-hand page. On an electronic reader, you have no reference like that.”

‘COMFORT’ IN COMMERCE

Many independent booksellers have long since turned to online sales in order to thrive in an increasingly virtual economy. However, the successful business owners take it a step further — they become community gathering spaces, Ciletti said.

“Our bookstore is about more than simply selling books. We’re a cultural resource for the community,” Ciletti said. “Bookstores around the country that want to stay in business need to look at that business model.”

Hooked on Books regularly hosts author signings, writing workshops and poetry readings at its two locations. In doing so, the Cilettis have cultivated a loyal customer base during Hooked on Books’ nearly four decades in business.

“We have people that come in and just want to sit in a chair and read a poetry book. It’s a comfort zone,” Ciletti said. “Where else in this town, on Tejon Street, can you go in and sit for half an hour and not buy anything and be able to enjoy resting?

“Bookstores — whether it be Poor Richard’s or our store — we’re comfort zones in the middle of commerce.”

When Skorman decided to expand his business to include a restaurant in the ‘70s, the idea of a bookstore where customers also could grab a bite to eat was still a novel one. Forty years later, Poor Richard’s has evolved to house four businesses under one roof — a restaurant, café and toy store — and many independent bookstores have latched on to the dining concept.

“We don’t just have books, but we have the ability for people to sit down and read to their kids or have a glass of wine,” Skorman said. “That certainly helps with the atmosphere that a lot of bookstores have started to cultivate. There are not many out there that don’t have a café connected to [them].”

Having a staff of avid readers also helps smaller stores combat the algorithm that large retailers like Amazon use to recommend books, Skorman said.

“There’s also the people that need somebody who can help them find what they’re looking for, and they’d rather talk to a real person than look up reviews online,” he said. “[Our staff] has well over 100 years of bookstore experience, so customers come and talk to someone who will make a suggestion. Those are advantages that I think have helped independent bookstores.”

At Covered Treasures, Plank has found community-minded customers to be her best asset. After 26 years in business, she is the only remaining independent bookseller in Monument.

“We’re the only ones here, and we’ve been here for quite a while now,” Plank said. “We’re in a good position. We have always had very good support from our community.

“I think it’s really nice that I’m in a smaller community that can support a bookstore,” she added. “A local bookstore really gives you a flavor of the community. The books there are not bought by someone in corporate headquarters — they’re bought by people who also live in that community because those are the things that they think people like. It really does reflect the community itself.”