Pages & Pipes, an Appleton bookseller that has been in business since 1942, announced on November 3 that it will be closing its doors. The closure, due to the company no longer being able to compete with e-commerce giants like Amazon, reflects a larger competition problem that brick-and-mortar booksellers have faced in the past decade. Even Barnes & Noble, traditionally a major competitor to local bookstores, plans to close eight stores, while Amazon plans to open seven physical locations.
Unlike Amazon, many local bookstores can’t mark their prices down to Amazon’s level without taking consistent losses. This has caused local booksellers like Thomas Lyons of Lyons Fine books in downtown Neenah to wonder what will cause customers to support local bookstores as opposed to e-commerce.
“How do we get people to buy a book for $24?”
We all know how it goes. We walk in a Barnes & Noble or, even better, our town’s coziest-looking bookshop, we loiter for ten, 15 minutes before finding the most perfect paperback we’ve been wanting for ages. Oh, no! It’s $13.99 plus tax! Then, thinking the shopkeeper doesn’t notice, we ninja-snap the cover with our phone camera, leave as quickly as we came, and then order a semi-mauled “slightly used” copy on Amazon for a cool 99 cents plus shipping and handling. And if we don’t do that, it’s because we can’t be bothered to get out of comfy pants to go on a 45-minute loitering spree, so we choose to choke the life out of local booksellers from the comfort of our homes instead of within their storefronts. Such is the power of the internet.
There’s no question that getting a bargain feels really, really good. But if we want to keep seeing local bookstores, we need to consider cutting back on Amazon purchases. Fortunately, there are some great reasons to shop locally.
Despite its name, Lyons Fine Books has most everything any other bookstore might have. Walking in, customers are greeted by classical music as they peruse general fiction, alphabetized with scrabble tiles, new releases, children’s books, books about books, poetry and short stories.
“We don’t want to scare people away,” Lyons says. “There’s a whole spectrum of price range. We want everyone to come.”
The difference, Lyons says, is the store’s wide selection of vintage books, often in first edition and signed by the author. This specialization allows the store to do something Amazon cannot: encapsulate history within its storefront.
“We trade in and preserve the printed word,” Lyons says. “We’re trying to preserve printed history.”
Readers can find classics such as Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” in limited edition and signed for $1,200 or signed newer copies by authors like James Patterson in the $30 range. A few even go back centuries, such as bound letters from John Adams in 1840.
Lyons says he appreciates both customers who enjoy the store’s historical selections, but are more interested in buying mass market books, as well as the hardcore collectors, 80 percent of whom shop from Lyons online via AbeBooks.
“There aren’t a lot of collectors out there, but there are a few people who keep our lights on,” Lyons says.
All of Lyons’ inventory is reflected on the store’s AbeBooks page, not just their vintage collection, so he says that’s a way to support local stores, but without leaving the house, which is one such motivation behind Amazon purchases.
“There’s stuff on there for 10 bucks,” Lyons says.
Lyons says a challenge in his business model is enforcing a minimum standard of quality for used trade-ins for cash or in-store credit. Unlike other used bookstores, which can sometimes compete with Amazon with their age-worn inexpensive trade-ins, Lyons Fine Books deals only in well-preserved curations. Even its vintage collection is pristine and well maintained. The result, Lyons says, is more expensive, but well worth the extra money.
“There’s a difference between used books and ‘used’ books,” Lyons says. “And we don’t accept poor-quality books. If you find a collector’s book, you’ll get a good book. It may be a little more, but a lot of this is in perfect condition.”
Lyons says another difference between Lyons Fine Books and Amazon is the human interaction that might just lead people to a treasured book they otherwise would never have found out about on their own.
“We’ll talk your ear off. I’m a shameless huckster of books,” Lyons says. “We will engage you about books. The advantage of us is we can talk extensively about the author and subject. Amazon, you have to know.”
But despite all those features, Lyons says the core problem is more complicated than being just a business model problem. As companies like Amazon race to the bottom on prices, customers follow suit, taking local business for granted in the rapid expansion of e-commerce.
“People are going to look back and say, ‘How come these local stores closed?’”
Because of this, Lyons says competing with large-scale competitors isn’t always as simple as matching prices or offering a product or service to a niche the competitors don’t. Rather, the key is engaging with the community to get the word out.
As a result, Lyons hosts author reading and signing events, and they also give advanced reading copies of books publishers send out to the community. And notably, working together with nearby local businesses in historic downtown Neenah, the bookstore hosted “Harry Potter Night at the Marketplace” July 21 last year. Customers could pre-order the then-upcoming “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” take photo-op selfies with cardboard cutouts broom in hand, and sample Harry Potter-themed food like “Golden Snitch ice cream” at Cherry on Top, now Scoop Dogs, pizza from Broken Tree Pizza and butterbeer from Timshel Cafe. Their collaboration brought traction to all four businesses.
“During Harry Potter night last year, we got everyone involved,” Lyons says. “The place was filled, and we sold lots of books.”
Lyons Fine Books is located 124 W Wisconsin Avenue Suite 140 in Neenah and is open Tuesdays to Fridays from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m.–1 p.m.