Once hot spots for bookworms to pick up new titles, meet local authors or pre-order a favorite writer's next release, bookstores are witnessing a revolutionary change in their industry as the Web claims the lion's share of retail book sales.
What once required a trip to the store during business hours is now managed with the click of a mouse — from any computer, any time of day.
Though many bookstores also sell online to stay competitive, Bloomsbury Books in Ashland sells books the old-fashioned way, in-person and with the option of conversation and fresh-brewed coffee in the cafe upstairs.
Co-owner Karen Chapman keeps customers updated on sales and event information by e-mail.
"Sales are more difficult for bookstores in recent years because Amazon has pretty much a corner on the market," Chapman says. "It's too hard to compete with them on the Web because we can't sell books for 10 cents.
"Our hope is that people will continue to want to browse in a store and be able to choose books they want to read that way."
Chapman's sentiments are echoed by bookstores across the valley and by national statistics.
According to the polling company Nielsen Online, a survey in 2008 found 41 percent of 26,312 people in 48 countries reported buying books online.
Easy access to used books on a variety of sites, including Amazon and eBay, also are impacting revenues for traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Consumers have harnessed the convenience of the Web to buy and sell used books at prices far lower than those of new books.
Book Industry Study Group, the industry's leading trade association for policy, standards and research, reported online sales of used books at $609 million in 2004 — a 33 percent increase over 2003 used book sales.
To maintain a strong footing, mom and pop bookstores have little choice but to focus on the things Internet bookstores can't provide — such as instant gratification, personalized service and their identities as community gathering spots, says Karen Polsgrove, owner of Village Books in Medford.
For her shop, which sells both new and used titles, Polsgrove offers unusual and collectible items online, taking advantage of the larger audience.
"Online is good, in the sense that it helps us to reach a larger audience, but what we're selling online are more high-end collectible books, not the common books like your Nora Roberts or John Grisham," she says.
"I think we do lose a lot of sales to the Internet but I think we're also losing sales to the younger population. There is a certain group of readers who don't think it's necessary to go to an actual store. They grew up with a computer and that's how they live their life."
Polsgrove says her store has managed to weather the Internet's impact "for now."
"The big thing is most of the customers who come in want to be able to see the books they're buying. They want to touch them, feel them, smell them, know what they're getting," she says.
"With a store like us, because we are a used bookstore and most of our items are half the cover price, they're going to find things less expensive than if they order them for a dollar online once you add on shipping."
Chapman agrees that local book shops will always have something to offer.
"I like to think there will always be a niche for us," she says. "A lot of people don't want to see their downtown become nothing. They want a Main Street and they want the local bookstore.
"You can visit our store any time of day and there are people milling around and it's just a good feeling. We've been around for 28 years. We have discounts in the store and a lot of reading groups signed up with us who save money by buying books here."
Chapman adds, "We try to stay competitive. I guess we'll keep doing what we do for as long as we can."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at email@example.com.