FALMOUTH — A few years ago Donna Williams didn’t know how long she’d be able to call herself a book seller.
“I finally have confidence I’m going to be able to retire as a book seller,” she said last week in her office at The Book Review, the shelves behind her overflowing with books.
Williams said her increased confidence is due to a surge in business after the liquidation of Borders in South Portland last summer and a particularly busy holiday season.
Williams is not alone.
The owners of Royal River Books in Yarmouth and Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick say they, too, have seen increases in business that can be attributed in part to the demise of big-box bookstores.
These local book sellers are bucking a national trend that saw a dramatic decline in bookstore sales at the end of 2011.
Preliminary numbers released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau show nationwide bookstore sales in December fell 15.6 percent, the largest decline in 2011. Overall, bookstore sales for the year were down 0.8 percent to $15.53 billion.
Williams opened The Book Review with her brother, Stephen Fournier, 32 years ago. At the time it was the only independent bookstore in town, a position they regained last year when Books, Etc. closed.
Williams said her store in the Falmouth Shopping Center has weathered many changes over the past three decades, most notably in the way people shop. When she first opened, people seemed to gravitate to libraries and small bookstores, but that changed as large chain stores opened in the area, she said.
“That had a great impact on independent bookstores,” she said. “In the end I think people chose different shopping experiences. Some people were looking for a better price, but other people did choose an alternative, which was smaller, more close to home and more personal attention.”
“I think definitely for us Borders having finally closed ended up having a positive impact on us in the sense people were looking for alternatives,” she added.
Williams said the sales increase her store experienced beginning last summer helped offset loses she attributes to the rising popularity of e-books. She said fiction sales have softened as readers turned to e-readers, but nonfiction sales have remained strong.
Another factor The Book Review has had to contend with is location. When the shop opened, the Route 1 plaza was full of businesses and shoppers. Now, half of the plaza is empty and the number of people who wander in to peruse the shelves has diminished, Williams said.
“The traffic is vastly diminished since the shopping center was full. It used to be the shopping destination for this whole area,” she said. “It was kind of like Falmouth’s downtown. It’s one of the things I miss the most since we first started.”
Like The Book Review, Gulf of Maine Books is adjusting to being the only bookstore in town. Beth Leonard, who opened the store 33 years ago with Gary Lawless, said 2011 began with a trend toward lower sales.
“Then the Brunswick Borders closed and sales picked up,” she said. “Overall it was a good year.”
Leonard said she has seen the number of people turning to e-books and online sales “growing by leaps and bounds.”
“We’re challenging ourselves to get special orders to our customers in the same or less time they’d get them from an online book seller,” she said.
Beyond that, Leonard said Gulf of Maine Books will continue to “just do what we do” because loyal customers appreciate the store’s inventory and the community created there. To that end, the store will celebrate its 33rd year in business with a birthday party on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 3 p.m.
“We’ve fostered a bit of a community here. People like to come and meet and be here in person,” she said. “As long as there are books, I think there will be bookstores.”
Amy McNaughton, owner of Royal River Books, said sales were up nearly 200 percent from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 and were up 75 percent in January. She attributes the “major increase in business” to picking up Borders customers and to changes she made in the store.
To attract more customers and better fit the needs of the community, McNaughton expanded the children’s section, added story times and craft sessions, and added items such as candles to her inventory.
When McNaughton opened her store four years ago, she knew she’d be competing against online sales and the growing popularity of e-readers.
“Everyone I knew thought I was nuts for opening a bookstore, but I knew those were the obstacles I’d be up against,” she said.
McNaughton said she believes she can keep her business viable by being creative and diversifying her inventory as needed. She has also tried to create a space where community members can gather.
“My goal is to serve the community,” she said. “I hope to be a good resource for the area for buying books, for getting together.”
Employee Kate Winn straightens a row of books at The Book Review in Falmouth, one of the local independent book sellers enjoying increasing sales. Donna Williams, owner of The Book Review, said she saw a boost after Borders in South Portland closed last summer.