Readers return Bookstores rethink, rebuild business
HARMONY — Siblings Lisa Fico and Christine Border, who recently opened The Little Green Bookstore in Harmony, strive to be different.
Despite the effects of the pandemic on publishing, independent bookstores such as The Little Green Bookstore and others in Butler County are forging ahead, some starting out new and others reopening and reinventing the way they do business.
In a mid-February nationwide report from Publisher's Weekly, bookstore sales rallied slightly in December from deep monthly slumps for most of 2020, but were still down 15.2% in the last month of the year compared to December 2019.
For all of 2020, news was bleak. Industry reports state bookstore sales fell 28.3% from 2019, according to preliminary estimates.
Despite that, independent bookstores, focusing on the needs of the local clientele, continue to rethink their operations and learn to grow by offering something unique, whether it is local author signings or special events.
While the Harmony store will feature standard fare from New York bestsellers, the sisters vow to handpick books that have inspired them from an array of independent booksellers and local authors.
With its grand opening, the store has seen a lot of activity on its social media. It's important for the store to get helpful feedback from customers, said Fico, who lives in Jackson Township.
The Little Green Bookstore's grand opening was Feb. 25, but selling books has been something Fico, who once worked for Barnes & Noble, is comfortable with.
“We receive a lot of support from independent booksellers,” Fico said. She said the bookstore receives about 20 to 30 emails a day with news about quality books.
As members of the American Booksellers Association, Fico and Border have years of experience in retail sales.
The Little Green Bookstore, located at the former gift shop George Rapp Haus, is home to more than 1,200 books from more than 1,000 authors, Border said, including Butler County authors. About 90% of those books are new, and 10% are special orders and used books.
“We're small but mighty,” said Cranberry Township resident Border, who owns a student portrait photography business, Grit and Grace. “It's all about the community: all generations and all genres.”
“People come here to talk and bond over books,” Fico said.
With COVID-19 precautions in place, it may be some time before the bookstore will feature signing events by local authors, although the sisters have been in contact with several who are willing to sit with customers and talk about their books.
The Little Green Bookstore gives customers “a boutique atmosphere with a focus on personal experience,” Fico said. “This new bookstore handpicks inventory and will welcome customers to grab a book, relax and read.”
A special area of the store will focus on children's and young adult books, with graphic books and puzzles.
Fico loves thrillers and “books that make me laugh,” she said.
Border enjoys historical fiction, self-improvement titles and mysteries.
A recent book that Border enjoyed and wants to share with customers is “The Paris Library” by Janet Skeslien Charles, published this year by Atria/Simon & Schuster.
Fico recommends “Finlay Donovan Is Killing It” by Elle Cosimano, published by Minotaur Books/St. Martin's Books.
The bookstore will also highlight celebrity picks from Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey.
“For us, this is a learning curve,” Fico said, until they see what works best for their customers.
According to a recent Publishers Weekly report, COVID-19 was particularly hard-hitting to booksellers. In March 2020, book sales fell 33.2% as retail lockdowns kicked in, and then plunged 74.2% in April as stay-at-home orders fully took hold, the trade magazine said. May sales were slightly better, falling 60% from May 2019.
While bookstore owners await the pandemic's end, they do what they can — physical distancing, mask-wearing and all the health recommendations — to ensure customers have a memorable and safe experience when they visit.
In the world of online booksellers, what would motivate these sisters to return to a traditional brick-and-mortar business?
“Book lovers love the actual feel of a book, and perusing through stacks of books,” Border said. “The book is like a piece of artwork, and they love every part of it, from cover to cover.”
Fans of used books, such as those who visit Readers' Paradise in Oakland Township, are glad the store reopened Feb. 2.
Because of the pandemic, according to the owners, the store was closed from last March until it reopened in early February. Slowly but surely, customers are returning.
The 1,600-square-foot bookstore is home to about 15,000 to 20,000 books, including general fiction, nonfiction, mysteries, romance, horror, fantasy and science fiction. It also stocks a wide array of books on self-improvement, westerns, biographies, children's and young adult books, sports, gardening, cookbooks and many books by local authors.
While the owner features romance books at Readers' Paradise, as a reader, she prefers mysteries.
“I like something with a kick, I guess,” said owner MaryAnn Shook, who lives in Center Township. Shook grew up reading the classics, such as Agatha Christie, and is a big fan of Victoria Holt.
Shook has help with the store from her husband, Dennis. She also has help from her daughter, Rochella Herold, who lives in Fairview Township.
The store, operated in the mid-1990s on East Jefferson Street in Butler, moved in 2008 to its present location, the home of the previous Welch's Sporting Goods. The bookstore has two back rooms to restock, with several thousand books in waiting.
Readers' Paradise carries about 2,000 hardback books as well.
Magazines are a specialty at the Book Nook. In fact, some refer to it as a magazine lover's paradise.
The store reopened the first week of June with modified hours after recovering from the March lockdown that closed it for about three months.
The store celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
After the lockdown, said manager Erik Bell, the number of magazine selections was reduced. Owner Mark Abranovic of Kittanning News offers a selection of not only magazines, but also children's books and books by local authors.
Bell said that as a wholesale magazine supplier, Abranovic owns other locations, including Book Nook of Indiana, Pa.
“Despite everything, we do have people coming in and buying things,” Bell said. “It's definitely picked up, and we have closer to the amount of customers we had before the lockdown.”
The No. 1 customer requests are the magazines, Bell said, and include many lifestyle, health and pet publications, varying from Dogster and Horse & Rider to Birds & Bloom, Birdwatching and The Writer.
Pandemic-stressed readers can also reach for the rack with “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books.
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