There are few things considered more indicative of the American experience than the mom and pop store. For decades, these small family businesses have found it harder and harder to exist and thrive. In Arlington and Alexandria, however, a number of independent bookstores are continuing to serve the community- even if it means sometimes joining the "bad guys" on the Internet. How do they do it?
"I don’t make money," said Alina Gawlik, owner and operator of Aladdin’s Lamp Children’s Books and Other Treasures in Arlington. Gawlik, is a former librarian who has owned her own store for 17 years. Gawlik noted that warehouse stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, often demonized by independent sellers, aren’t the biggest problem for stores like hers.
"The biggest threat is the Internet- the big chains are having problems too," said Gawlik.
Walking into Aladdin’s Lamp feels like literally entering a genie’s lamp- one must descend several sets of gray stairs to find the brightly colored room that children would clearly delight in exploring. While this may work on the metaphor level, being underground is a clear disadvantage, and its highlights a problem facing many stores.
"If I was upstairs it would be much better," said Gawlik. "The rents are too high."
These problems are old news for Gawlik, but in Alexandria two new book sellers are just getting their feet wet. Trish Brown and Ellen Klein were both employees of the long time Old Town fixture "A Likely Story." After that store closed, Brown and Klein decided to lease the same space and less than a month ago opened a new shop, "Hooray for Books!"
"I knew the community felt a void," said Klein. "With all the families with small children, there was a need for a store."
Brown noted that physical interaction is one of the most important things that Hooray for Books! and other stores have going for them.
"People who love books love to hold books," she said.
Another side of the independent book business is the used books sale. Book Bank Used Books, in Alexandria, and the Bookhouse in Arlington, both buy and sell used books with their patrons. These stores have even more unique challenges than other independent book stores.
"Getting a supply of used books, it’s unique to a used books store," said Don Alexander, the owner and manager of Book Bank. Alexander has owned his store for seven years, having opened it after he took early retirement from his job as a lawyer.
Getting that steady stream of books is not as easy as it used to be. According to Natalie Hughes, who has owned and operated various used bookstores for 37 years, one of the biggest sources used to be mass sales. These "attic sales," however, are dwindling.
"There aren't any attics left. We haven't bought an attic full of books in 5-6 years," Hughes said.
One thing that independent owners agree on is that customers are the most important part of operating a successful community store.
Gawlik, who had to move her store a number of years ago, could think of some times when her customers when above and beyond to help her.
"Moving was very expensive," she said. "Guess who came forward [to help]? My customers."
The opening of Hooray For Books! in the place of the shuttered A Likely Story, has brought out emotional outbursts in some of the former stores longtime customers.
"We’ve had people that are just so thrilled," said Brown. "We’ve had one lady who came in crying!"
Bringing people back again and again is also the important for the Book Bank, according to Alexander.
"We have a large amount of repeat customers," he said. "Once they find us, they seem to like us."
EVEN WITH LOYAL customers and a grateful community, Gawlik’s concerns about the Internet taking away sales is very much relevant. And, it turns out, an issue affecting much more than only booksellers and other independent retailers.
"It’s time for the Internet to pay taxes, to equalize things," said Gawlik, who noted that the Booksellers Association was organizing in every state to work toward this goal.
Klein noted, however, that is was a very big issue for the government as well.
"States are trying to get Internet sales tax because of the state revenue situation. It’s part of the bigger picture," she said.
Even though they are committed and independent, some independent stores are embracing the Internet rather than fighting it.
"We may sell on the Internet too," said Klein. "We would like to offer that for the very busy person.
Both the Book Bank and the Bookhouse offer some sales over the Internet, Hughes noted that Internet sales and in person sales have their place.
"I like both things. I actually really like the quietness of selling by mail, but I also like when people come in," she said.
Despite technologies changing the way they do business, these local booksellers seem to committed for the long haul- whatever it takes.