THE BOOK BUSINESS is risky business; especially if you're an independent shop owner in Salt Lake City.
Just as the large supermarkets with their discount prices and large inventories won customers from the neighborhood grocer, big book chains such as Walden and B. Dalton have been luring shoppers from local mom-and-pop book operations.And that has made skating pretty slick for Utah independents.
"My feeling is the economy in the United States is getting more bottom line - more profit - oriented," says Darcy Critchfield, who runs seminars on running bookstores. "Companies such as B. Dalton are better at that, they tend to see books as product, as units. Many independent shop owners, however, are basically readers. Marketing and sales are often difficult for them because they basically see bookshops as places that provide access to ideas.'
At the moment the independent book scene has something of a "good news, bad news" angle to it. The message most stores want readers to hear is "the independents are alive and well."
And that's true. Still, you don't need to be a market analyst to see that some independents have taken a beating. Three small bookstores have gone under over the past year, at least one other is teetering. One or two have had to rely on the bankroll of the owner to weather losses.
On the other hand, independent owners say the new pressure has also produced opportunities. Sally Smith, who owns and operates A Woman's Place, talks about that two-edged sword.
"Yes, it's hard to compete with large stores that can buy books at a volume that affords them discounts from publishers," she says. "When I walk through K-Mart, for instance, and see `Christmas in America' being sold at the price I buy it for, I have to shake my head. And, of course, the bigger chain stores are located in malls where people can do one-stop shopping.
"On the other hand, people tell me they often shop the independent stores as a point of principle now. The independents tend to have more background information about books, tend to employ people who love books and are interested in them. And each store has its own personality, specialty and approach."
It's true that many conscientious readers have a hierarchy of bookstores, sometimes paying a little more at their favorite store because they want to help the business along.
G. Barnes, literary director of the Utah Arts Council, puts a lot of thought into that process, in fact.
"If I can find a product from someone who is local, I'll shop there," he says. "Independently owned bookstores are one of the last places one can find the kind of caring and service - the kind of manners, devotion and civility I recall being widespread as a child."
Sam Weller's Zion Book has been around since most people were children. It's as much of a Utah business institution as ZCMI. And his store trades heavily on tradition and the personalized service Barnes mentions.
"Our store's been alive 59 years now," says Weller, "and I'd say 90 percent of our sales is due to loyalty. If it weren't for our regular customers we'd be scrambling. As it is we're having a pretty good year."
Weller, like other independents, has had to hustle, of course. He and other shops have put more and more emphasis on the regional book - a book with a local angle, publisher or author.> "For about nine years we've been focusing on regional titles," says Patrick De Freitas of the Waking Owl. "If you don't help and pro-mote people here, how can they survive? Besides, without them we're nothing. It's impossible to measure right now how much that has helped us financially, but I do know it's the right thing to do."
There are also other ways that independents can strengthen their hand, Critchfield explains. One option is banding together.
"I think the independent stores should pick, say, 12 titles a year and all of them really push those titles. That way they could order in bulk and form a front of sorts. You stay in business as a bookstore by turning books over. That has to be in your mind at all times."
Betsy Burton, proprietor of the King's English, feels community involvement is also an avenue.
"I don't look at selling books as an enterprise, I actually feel it's something of a calling," she says, "a passing on of knowledge. And community projects and involvement are a big part of that. It's important that people who read - and even those who don't - get exposure to authors, ideas and books."
In the end, sometimes even a great game plan doesn't seem to be enough. Bruce Roberts, owner of the Cosmic Aeroplane, is one of the most respected book minds locally. Still, his shop is experiencing rocky times.
"Part of the problem is we were doing a lot of business in our record department until CD's (compact discs) came along," Roberts explained. "And there have been some other problems, too. But actually we've done quite well. I'd like to have money for more stock, but we do get good traffic through the store, and our promotions - such as offering free calendars - seem to be working.
"I have to say I'm optimistic about the independent stores in this town. And each of us in Salt Lake City seems to have found a niche."
In the end, one must say the large chain stores also fill a niche. And may prove to be the future. You have to be a bit idealistic to get into the book business in the first place, and you need to keep that idealism to succeed.
For now, at least, local "wildcat" book shop owners have kept it.