The final chapter? Service, keeping dollars local drive Falmouth's 2 indie booksellers
FALMOUTH — Books Etc. owner Allan Schmid is worried about "the customer who goes out without asking."
Hit by the economy and competition from Internet and national chain stores, the independent book store he opened in Falmouth Village on Route 1 in December 2000 seems a bit naked, with many shelves sparsely stocked or empty.
"We got slammed by the downturn in the economy," Schmid said, "and through various things, like closing the Portland store, we're on hard times. If there were some way to let people know we're still here and to spend your dollar locally, it might make the difference."
Schmid said he closed his Portland store in April because sales there could not support the escalating rent. That store had been operating since 1973; he'd owned it since 1987.
Now, with many of the shelves bare in his Falmouth store, some customers have left to buy elsewhere, he said, rather than ask to order a book that's not in stock.
So Schmid is trying to spread the word that buying local will not only help him, but will help Falmouth's economy by keeping a higher percentage of every dollar spent in the community.
Highlighting a study from Stacey Mitchell, of the Institute for Local Self Reliance and author of "Big Box Swindle," Schmid said $45 of every $100 spent at locally owned businesses stays in the community, while only $14 of every $100 at national chains remains local.
"If you buy online, zero stays in the community – in Maine, they don't even charge sales tax," he said. "Who's going to pay for those roads the UPS trucks are driving down (delivering on-line orders)?"
But competing with the huge inventory and often discounted prices of the chains and online sellers is all but impossible, he said. The key lies in the level of personal service and the book knowledge of the salespeople.
While chains may be good at pushing the top of the bestsellers list, Schmid said independent booksellers are better prepared to offer reviews of less famous authors' work as well.
"You get all these mid-list or emerging authors and the staff of all independent bookstores are reading advance copies – reading and loving the books and touting them," he said. "A book is an investment of time – it takes someone to read it and recommend it. That's what independents are all about – pushing these emerging authors."
Until recently, Schmid sold only new books. But now, he is having some success selling used books he acquires from customers in exchange for store credit. "It's taken off because people want to clean off their shelves," he said.
But Schmid's store isn't the only game in town. Just across the street in the Falmouth Shopping Center is The Book Review, opened 30 years ago and still operated by brother-and-sister owners Stephen Fournier and Donna Williams.
Though Williams does not deny the negative effects of the economy and of national and on-line booksellers, she said the greatest impact has been the large number of vacancies in the shopping center, resulting in a decline in customer traffic.
"The biggest impact was eight or nine years ago when Ames went out of business," she said. "Of course, Rite Aid and Key Bank also moved out."
But Williams shares Schmid's opinion of online book retailers. Though she said the store has a loyal customer base, she acknowledged that the online sites have eaten into her profits.
She is less concerned about the "big box" retailers, she said, because "Wal-Mart does pay property and sales tax." While fewer dollars stay local, Williams said, they also employ a lot of people.
"Online sites don't do any of that, (then they) reduce prices," she said. "They contribute nothing to the local schools."
For Williams, cost control is critical today.
"It just requires constant attention to overhead costs and how best to control them," she said. "Paying attention to that level of detail has helped us survive all of this; there's no question it's been somewhat of a challenge."
Having much of her staff with her almost as long as she's owned the store has also made a big difference, she said.
"For a lot of people in today's marketplace, just having people they know and trust and have had experience with counts for a lot," Williams said.
Although The Book Review and Books Etc. are direct competitors, Schmid's fond memories of Harvard Square's "seven book stores within spitting distance of each other" in Cambridge, Mass., "back in the good old days" has him convinced that there is room in Falmouth for both stores.
Both Schmid and Williams said they would be interested in a "Buy Local" movement in the town, an initiative joined by Portland, Scarborough and some other towns in the area.
"What environmental costs are associated with this (online) buying – (individual) packaging, separate trips from UPS going to individual homes?" Williams asked. "I understand people think they are saving money ... but I sometimes wonder what the larger costs are. Hopefully there will still be enough of a sense of community that people will want to support local businesses."
Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.