Staying booked: Small-town booksellers discuss challenges, benefits of independence

For the Basin Business Journal | April 19, 2024 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — Local small-town booksellers from Moses Lake’s Sandbox Bookstore, Wenatchee’s Ye Olde Bookshoppe and Leavenworth’s A Book For All Seasons talked about how they operate in a smaller town and compete with larger retailers.

Sandbox’s owner, Mai Houvener, said she is not yet equipped to handle online sales, as it is difficult for her small store to afford the shipping costs and extra manpower required – she said she doesn’t want to pass that expense on to the customers.

“With Amazon and those big stores, books are our loss leader for them,” Houvener said. “So they go in and sometimes they sell the books at what we get them for, and there’s no way we can sell them for that; we’d just be taking a loss because we already paid for delivery.”

AnaMaree Ordway, owner of Ye Olde Bookshoppe, is set up for online sales, but she said the majority of her sales are still in-person.

“It’s slowly but surely (growing),” Ordway said. “There’s more and more awareness. We used to get a couple of orders a month and now we’re getting maybe one a day or a few a week.

Ye Olde Bookshoppe, Sandbox and A Book For All Seasons are all basically the only independent bookstores in their respective cities. Ordway talked about the possibility of more bookstores opening in Downtown Wenatchee. 

“There was a time when there was room for six or seven. I don’t think either of us would survive anymore,” she said. “There’s too much reliance on Amazon,” 

Ordway said customers would often choose Amazon over ordering a book on her online store after not finding it in person.

Despite the competition with other retailers, Houvener and Ordway both said they have loyal customers who support their stores. 

“They’re definitely people who want to support a small business who come in. Instead of going to Amazon, they’re coming to us to buy,” Houvener said. “We do a 10% off discount on all new books, which cuts into our revenue, but same time it’s like, ‘how do I get these people in the door first?’”

Stephen Sharpe, who co-owns A Book For All Seasons with his wife Donica, also talked about people supporting small businesses.

“It does help overall, people supporting small businesses, and we have tons of people coming in our store from all around the Northwest, people coming from towns and they’re like, ‘We don’t have a bookstore in our town anymore, and we were using Amazon or whatever, and we were buying from these big box stores, and then our store was gone,’” he said.

Ordway said she hasn’t tried many other ways to compete with online retailers.

“I am mostly focused on the store; there is no way for me to compete against Amazon,” she said.

Houvener said trying to figure out what to stock can be difficult, and buying in bulk can be daunting.

“A lot of times I can’t have two or three of the same things; it has to be a variety, so I have to just try different things at different times and that’s hard for someone who wants to come and buy something regularly,” she said. 

Smaller stores may also have a harder time competing with the advertising and marketing resources of larger retailers.

“I’ve tried advertising previously, but it didn’t feel like It was working right, so we don’t know what works in this area, like what are people really looking at? Is it the radio?” Houvener asked. “Everything costs money, and if you’re a big corporation, then that’s fine. You can throw money at that and have a budget for it, but when you’re a small business it’s like can I really throw out 200 bucks on it?

Sandbox stocks its books from Ingram Publisher Services, which better suits the store’s lower volume of inventory.

“Our main warehouse is in Oregon, so it’s like a one or two-day turnaround, which is really fast,” Houvener said. “But because we’re not ordering tons of books, maybe like 50 books a week, then it’s like a weekly order.”

Houvener said she doesn’t usually sell 50 books in a week, and often people are looking for a specific book or don’t buy anything after browsing because of the price.

Ordway, who also sources her books through Ingram, talked about banding together with other booksellers and organizations.

“None of us could do it alone. Ingram couldn’t do it alone,” she said. “Combined, we’re a larger presence.”

A Book For All Seasons deals with higher volume, particularly in recent years, Sharpe said, so the store can source its books directly from the publisher but still tries to embrace its status as an independent bookstore.

“We try to provide something that you might not get from Amazon, which is the personal touch, actually being able to talk to someone and actually go and feel the physical books and look through them and browse,” Sharpe said. “We also offer something that some bookstores might not offer in the terms of we have a good knowledge, a working knowledge base of books and the people who work here in our bookstore love books, so usually when people come in, there’s a shared affinity.”

Ordway also mentioned another challenge of smaller bookstores compared to larger retailers; staffing. 

“A lot of us super small ones trying to afford an employee; I’d love to be able to pay another person at least part-time, take a vacation and keep the store open, but I can’t do it,” she said.

Houvener also said she would have difficulty affording more than her two part-time staff members, and she doesn’t even pay herself, instead putting all the money back into her store. 

“I don’t think any bookstore goes into business to make money. It’s kind of like teaching; going into teaching, you don’t really go in to make money,” she said. “But it’s a great feel-good thing. Really, you’re connecting people and stories.”

A Book For All Seasons has more staff but is still under 10 employees. Even with the benefits of Leavenworth’s tourism, running a small bookstore is still both an endeavor and an opportunity to engage with the local community.

“We definitely have a really strong connection with the local community, so we have great local business as well as tourist business, so that really helps,” Sharpe said. “I mean, if there wasn’t tourism here in Leavenworth, our bookstore definitely wouldn’t be like it is, and I’m not sure if it would even be open. It’s not easy to do.”

The small bookstore’s connection to the community is another small-town benefit not always seen by larger retailers.

“It’s worth the work. The neat thing with a used bookstore inventory is that people will be shocked, especially when they’re from out of town,” Ordway said. “They have a preconceived notion of what we are, which is usually small-town hicks, and then they come in, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have classics, philosophy and you have poetry’ … This is what people here are reading. It just represents the people who live here.”

    Mai Houvener, owner of Sandbox Bookstore in Moses Lake, shows off one of the cloth carrying bags she sells in the store.
 File photo