Where have all the bookstores gone?

Around here in beautiful Newport, Oregon, we have been blessed for years with several wonderful bookstores. A while back, I wrote about how Sea Towne Books has moved into a smaller space and isn’t selling much. Yesterday I visited Canyon Way, which used to be THE bookshop around here. Its ancient rooms went on and on, filled with all kinds of books, plus knicknacks, quilts, clothing, garden tools, CDs and more. There was also a top-notch restaurant, plus a deli, but the books were the thing.

Ages ago, I interviewed the owner, Robie, who told me the long history of store. We hadn’t talked for a while. Well, things have changed there, too. I knew they hosting local musicians in the deli area once a week in what they were calling Club 1216. But I had no idea they had expanded the seating area into space that used to be occupied by hundreds of books.

Chatting with Kate, bookstore manager, fishing boat helper and part-time mandolin player, I learned that she would like me to do a program, which is good, but I also learned that she and Robie have simply stopped ordering books, which is bad. People are buying their books online, and now they’re reading them on machines like Amazon’s Kindle. Funky independent bookstores can’t compete. Either they close or offer something different, so Canyon Way, just up the hill from the Bayfront, is changing the emphasis to gifts, entertainment and food. “I love books, but this will be good, too,” Kate said, hurrying off to help her husband paint the new seating area.

The local authors’ shelf is still there, but I didn’t see my book Stories Grandma Never Told. I hope somebody bought both copies. I did find a copy of my other recent book, Freelancing for Newspapers. It’s a shame nobody has taken it home, but it’s one book over from Stephen King’s On Writing. How cool is that?

I hear even the big brick-and-mortar chains are struggling. On my Freelancing for Newspapers blog, we have talked a lot about newspapers shrinking and going out of business, but bookstores are quietly dying, too. What’s really sad is that most people haven’t even noticed.

The Tide Goes Out at Sea Towne

Sea Towne, a maze of bleached-board ramps and stairways, with a lifelike wooden sailor sitting in the courtyard, and soft music playing from hidden speakers, is Newport’s only so-called mall, but like the wood it’s made out of it, this charming sea of shops on Highway 101 between Subway and Sears has been fading for a long time.

Before my twice-monthly meetings in one of the offices there, I often stop at the Sea Towne bookstore. Owner Bill Terry has been a great supporter of local authors, hosting book-signings, displaying our works prominently, welcoming us like old friends. Since he first heard about Stories Grandma Never Told, my book about Portuguese women, he always says the same thing: Did I tell you my ex-wife was Portuguese? Yes, I say, you did.

In November, I did a signing there to promote A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s. The handful of sales I made that day were the only sales, he said. As I sat at my little table with my books spread before me, I noticed some of the shelves were bare. The faltering economy, plus the growing trend to buy books from the big online outlets, has hit independent bookstores hard. Why drive all the way to Sea Towne, where you probably won’t find the book you’re looking for, when you can order it from Amazon with a few keystrokes?

So yesterday, I was sad but not surprised to find Bill’s old store empty. A sign on the window noted that the future occupants had applied for a liquor license. Another sign, handwritten in black felt pen, noted that the bookstore had moved “around the corner.”

I followed the signs until I discovered Bill’s new store. It’s much smaller, the walls inside a startling shade of yellow. There was Bill, leaning on the counter. He had planned to go out of business at the end of last year, he said. Nobody was buying, and with the snow that smacked Oregon during the holidays, the Christmas rush never happened. He’s still trying to figure out how to fit his books into the reduced space. Four banks of magazines have been reduced to one, and the children’s section, once a sizable nook, is just one wall now. Right away Bill started apologizing for not having my books in a prominent display. No, no, no, I said. It’s still here; that’s all that matters.

I’ll be honest. I buy most of my books from Amazon.com. It’s just easier, but I ordered three from Bill in December and another one yesterday. If nobody shops at the bookstores, they’ll disappear.

The bookstore isn’t the only Sea Towne shop experiencing a sea change. The dog boutique is gone. Charisma Gifts has moved out. Several offices upstairs are vacant. As usual, I saw no one at the restaurant where the owners valiantly put up mouth-watering menus every day, serving a handful of customers at most.

Sea Towne still has a clothing shop, a home decorating business, a dance studio and numerous psychiatrists’ and counselors’ offices. I believe the key shop, a tiny cubbyhole opposite the elevator, is still going but it’s only open sporadically.

Sea Towne is becoming a ghost town, haunted by that wooden sailor who looks so real I always feel as if I need to say hello. My footsteps echo on the wooden planks. It feels as if everyone else has jumped ship.