Words and Tunes 

Book and record stores face change with innovation

Record Exchange

Laurie Pearman

Record Exchange

During the last few years it hasn't been easy to own an independent business. Now imagine owning an independent business while facing not only a down economy but a swiftly changing market in which technology is cutting you out of the equation.

It's the challenging reality for both book and record store owners, whose function is rapidly being usurped by the Internet. Yet a few hardy souls are keeping some of these traditional community hubs open while finding ways to work with changing technology—or to make technology work for them.

"People have this vision of locally owned businesses as the dinosaurs left over from the '20s and '30s," said Bruce Delaney, who, along with his wife Laura, owns both Rediscovered Books and All About Games.

But with a constantly revolving calendar of readings, book groups, signings and assorted events, Rediscovered is charging ahead in the battle to stay consistently relevant.

While many consumers now do the majority of their shopping from their office chairs, and e-books are on the rise—now outselling physical books on Amazon for the first time—the smaller size and autonomy of the corner bookstore provides certain advantages. When's the last time you were able to discuss your next big read with a computer?

Even knowing all the challenges of running a modern bookstore didn't stop Jeremiah Wierenga, who bought Hyde Park Books in late 2010.

Wierenga had some apprehension about going into "an industry that is under fire," but his own love of independent booksellers motivated him to take the risk. He sees two main challenges in today's market: online commerce and decreased readership. He acknowledges that in order to survive, book stores can't just sell books. With all the options customers have, they must integrate other elements into their businesses.

"Some of them have small presses. Some of them have cafes," Wierenga said of the changing business model.

In addition to selling online and looking into e-books, he is considering other options, including a small press of his own—or even cooking classes.

Independent stores also have the luxury of complete control over both their inventory and the physical qualities of the store.

"You know every book in your store; you can recommend just about everything," Wierenga said, adding that this freedom allows independent stores to react faster to both the market and customer demands.

This adaptability extends into the digital realm. In addition to staying in contact with the community through websites and emails, social networking has allowed businesses to do it more affordably. Rediscovered Books has also kept up by making Google e-books available through its website, letting customers who prefer the new format to support their local bookseller.

The growth of music piracy and digital formats has been a major threat to The Record Exchange and other independent record stores, which once looked to youth markets for support. Those young customers now depend on online music purchases.

"A lot of record stores used to try to be near college campuses and suddenly that became the worst possible thing that could happen to you," said Mike Bunnell, who opened The Record Exchange in 1977.

But there's been an unexpected upturn in recent years thanks to a very old source. After years of decline, vinyl record sales are actually increasing, especially among young people, and the variety of music emerging in this format is expanding.

Bunnell suspects the resurgence may be a reaction to the casual nature of digital files on an MP3 player, as well as better sound quality, album artwork and the ritualistic involvement of listening to a vinyl record as factors.

"It's a bigger hassle, but at the same time, that ritual means that you're paying more attention to what you're really doing," Bunnell said.

Despite the challenges of both the economy and technology, those who love the businesses are devoted as ever to keeping their doors open.

"We see ourselves differently—as innovators," Delaney said.

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