Bookstore’s demise

Valerie Barton, owner of The Book Exchange in West Ashley, pitches a book to a customer. The bookstore, Charleston’s oldest, will close at month’s end after 32 years. Barton said it’s just a sign of the times as people migrate to e-readers.

Bob and JoAnn Rainear of Hanahan love to snuggle up with a good book.

They’ve been making monthly trips to Val’s Book Exchange in West Ashley for at least a decade.

But in just a few days, they won’t have that opportunity any longer.

After 32 years, store owner Valerie Barton will close her bookstore, the oldest in Charleston, on Tuesday.

First the recession took a bite out of business. Then the introduction of electronic readers such as Kindle and Nook came along.

Even Bob Rainear now owns an e-reader.

“I still read the books, but I don’t read as many,” the retired Santee Cooper executive said while he and his wife scoured the shelves at Barton’s shop.

When the Great Recession cranked up in December 2007, Barton noticed a gradual decline in the number of people buying the used paperback books in her 3,300-square-foot store on Savannah Highway.

“People that normally would bring in a couple of books and then buy 20 or 30 books, that stopped or slowed down considerably,” Barton said.

When electronic readers came along, Barton realized people would stop coming in altogether.

“Every time a new, improved one hits the market, we take a big hit,” she said. “This past Christmas we took a big whammy. It’s been the perfect storm.”

Barton tried to keep the business going and struggled with the decision to close for more than a year.

After the holiday season, she realized her business has declined about 35 percent over the past four years and knew she couldn’t stay in business much longer.

“I have cried about it every day,” she said, wiping away a tear as longtime customers hugged and consoled her one last time.

“Now what am I going to do?” said nursing technician Josephine Watkins of Red Top. She’s been coming to the bookstore for 30 years and doesn’t like the newly popular e-readers. “I’m so sorry to hear this. I’m old- school. I like to feel the paper in the pages.”

Linda Koza of North Charleston had the same reaction when she heard about the store closing.

“I’m really sad,” she said. “I’m a hold-a-book reader.”

Lisa Austin of West Ashley owns a Kindle, but she is such a voracious reader, it was costing her over $100 a month to read books on the e-reader.

“My husband was getting upset with me,” she said, “so I put it down completely six months ago and started going to the public library.”

Earlier this month, she was in Barton’s store, where everything is half price. Even the furnishings are on sale. What’s not sold, she plans to sell to an overstock distributor and then move to Pennsylvania to start a new life.

It’s almost the same story at Sullivan’s Trade a Book in Mount Pleasant.

“Business has been declining every year for the past five years,” said Sean Sullivan, who has owned and operated the 900-square-foot bookstore for 12 years. “For me, it was not so much the recession as the technological trend.”

When e-readers started to become popular two Christmases ago, he noticed a drop-off in customers. “Then this past Christmas, it was like gangbusters. I had customers come in and apologize for getting them.”

Sullivan hopes to make it to the end of the year without losing money.

“There’s just no room for brick-and-mortar stores of this type anymore, which is unfortunate but it’s the wave of the future,” he said.

Research shows people who read on electronic devices also tend to read books, according to Wanda Jewell, executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance in Columbia.

“The issue is where they buy them,” she said.

Since Amazon sells Kindle and holds about 65 percent of the e-book market, and Barnes and Noble markets Nook, people tend to buy physical books there as well, Jewell said.

The key to independent bookstores staying in business is diversity.

“You have to distinguish yourself,” Jewell said. “You have to offer something consumers can’t find anywhere else. Just offering books is not going to cut it anymore.”

She suggested singles parties where match-ups are made based on books people like, camps for kids based on literature series, therapy groups with books based on problem areas, and Book of the Month clubs.

“People go to bookstores because it’s an experience they can’t get anywhere else,” she said.

A recent study by Pew Research Center found one in five American adults read an electronic book during the past year as gift-giving sped the shift away from the printed page.

Four times more U.S. readers, or 15 percent, were reading e-books on a typical day now compared with less than two years ago.

But when it comes to reading in bed, the verdict is split. Forty-five percent of those surveyed preferred e-books and 43 percent gave the nod to old-fashioned print.

The e-book industry has grown from $78 million in sales in 2008 to $1.7 billion in 2011, according to Albert Greco, a book industry expert at Fordham University. He estimates e-book sales will reach $3.55 billion in 2012.

Nearly a quarter of Americans will own an e-book reader by 2016, according to Massachusetts-based consulting firm Forrester.

The Pew poll found that in February, 21 percent of Americans 18 and older had read an e-book in the previous 12 months, up from 17 percent two months earlier, mainly because of holiday gift-giving.

The shift toward e-books will probably strengthen after the Justice Department recently decided to sue Apple and five publishers, accusing them of price fixing. That could result in lower prices.

After the announcement, Amazon decided to reduce the price of some popular e-books from $14.99 to $9.99 or less.

Barton realizes the e-book craze is taking over the business, but she also knows that one-on-one contact between a storekeeper and a patron is something to be cherished.

“Our customers are here because they don’t have to be,” she said. “They are doing it for their own pleasure. And they have not just been customers. They have been friends. I’m going to miss everyone dearly, especially my co-workers Donna Perritt, who’s been here 13 years, and Joyce Simmons, who’s been here 20 years.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.