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For many readers, small stores still big

Published 11:22 am, Saturday, January 11, 2014

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  • Floor manager Melissa Thorkilsen at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Conn. The independent bookstore is located at 35 Elm St. Photo: Nelson Oliveira / New Canaan News
    Floor manager Melissa Thorkilsen at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Conn. The independent bookstore is located at 35 Elm St. Photo: Nelson Oliveira

 

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Common opinion holds that the Internet and e-reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle soon will push independent bookstores into extinction.

Failures of once-ubiquitous book chains -- like the 2011 bankruptcy of Border's -- seem to fortify that narrative. And there have been some losses at the local level, like the closings of Rainy Faye in Bridgeport and Dinosaur's Paw in Fairfield.

But even with a sluggish economy and the rise of digital reading, many independent bookstores, like New Canaan's Elm Street Books at 35 Elm St., are thriving as go-to places for area bookworms.

Kathleen Millard, the general manager at Elm Street Books, said independent bookstores offer an atmosphere that larger retailers do not. Better customer service, she said, is an advantage at smaller stores. At Elm Street Books, all employees are bibliophiles who can offer good book recommendations, Millard said.

"In order to have a book-selling job, you need to be a book lover," she said.

Sales at independent bookstores grew 8 percent in 2012, according to several news accounts. From January to September 2013, at least 65 bookstores joined the American Booksellers Association, bringing the total to 1,632.

That number has gone up every year since 2009, according to the association report.

Linda Devlin, who runs Linda's Story Time, a one-room bookstore nestled into a small shopping center in Monroe, said she's found ways to make herself stand out from the big-box competition.

Her store is relatively small, but that appeals to parents who might lose track of their children among the many aisles of a large chain store. And it creates an atmosphere in which people feel at ease to stop and chat with each other for long stretches -- a place where people can connect.

Neil Silberblatt, the founder of Voices of Poetry in New Milford, said that community connection is an important characteristic of local stores.

"Independent bookstores are the lifeblood of small communities, much as libraries," he said. "They offer everyone the opportunity to be part of the wonderful world of words."

Millard, who has worked at Elm Street Books for 10 years, said New Canaan residents of all ages frequent the store and are "loyal" to hard copy books.

"We're lucky because this is a community who enjoys reading real books," she said.

Elm Street Books also hosts book signings and talks, and offers electronic orders and in-town deliveries. The store recently conducted "Where's Waldo" scavenger hunts for children. On Thursday, Jan. 16, author Dani Shapiro will be at Elm Street Books discussing her new book "Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life."

At Linda's Story Time, Devlin said she can assemble orders faster than the major stores do because she doesn't wait to bundle them together in the cheapest way possible. If her supplier has a book, she said, she can have it in the customer's hands in a few days.

And she prides herself on being a "voracious" reader, having personally sat down with many of the books on her shelves and knowing which ones will bring smiles to the faces of certain readers.

She said she tries to share her enthusiasm for literature with everyone who comes in the store.

"The ones who've stayed on really get it right," Devlin said. "We do it with our passion, our brains and our energy."

Millard shared Devlin's view. "We struggle to reach our goals, but we're hanging in there," she said.