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REAL page-turners

Booksellers in Ashland have found ways to survive and sometimes thrive in tough times with traditional, even old-fashioned, business strategies.

Cindy Munroe, owner of The Book Exchange at 90 N. Pioneer St., is happy to be selling lots of used books, and to be doing it the old-fashioned way: location, repeat business, and without a website. She believes it to be the oldest used bookstore in the Rogue Valley, established in 1971.

Munroe, who does have a computer for book orders and record-keeping, said that tourism is a big part of her business. "Our tourists are educated; they come to see Shakespeare," she said.

Munroe added that the "degree of readers in this town is high," and Ashland residents show strong support for local business.

Sales were good enough that last November she was able to move the store to a larger location, increasing her collection to about 45,000 to 50,000 titles.

"I can't say that Kindles and iPads have changed my business," she said, adding the same goes for amazon.com and big discount stores. Because the discounted books come to her exchange once they're read, "I think that they help me."

Steve Cole bought Soundpeace in 1991, when the era of the discount book superstore was just beginning. Since then, he has experienced a steady decline in book sales, which has continued with the rise of Internet booksellers and e-books.

He began to diversify, adding gift items, music and magazines, so that today his stock of spiritual, inspirational and personal-growth books accounts for only a third of total sales.

Soundpeace, at 199 E. Main St., offers customer incentives: Join the book club and get a 15 percent discount on any book purchased. A gift certificate program, covering all merchandise, returns $10 for every $200 spent.

"It's hard to say if it's the economy or the Kindle" that is responsible for continuing book sale decline, he said.

Cole is philosophical about e-books: "It's evolution. Things change." But for him, personally, he said he spends enough time looking at TV and computer screens.

"I like books," he said. "I like the feeling, the paper."

"Definitely the business is not what it was," said David Ralston, owner of Antiquarium Books and Antiques at 297 E. Main St.

Although he must now buy more selectively, he is optimistic that the shop's eclectic selection of antique items and old and rare books and magazines will sustain it.

Ralston's collections of 1960s books, magazines and records, metaphysics and illustrated children's books all continue to sell well. He said he is buoyed by the feedback of customers, including young people who show particular interest in the '60s collection.

"I'm very low-tech," he said, speculating that during the summer blackouts, Antiquarium was "probably the only shop in town that could still operate their cash register."

He thinks people are a little old-fashioned as well. "There's a certain ambience that you're buying; you can't replace that electronically," he said. "They come in and sniff the air. They want a certain experience."

Shakespeare Books and Antiques is bucking the endangered independent bookstore trend. Owner Judi Honoré says that sales have been steadily improving in recent years. As the town prepares for winter, she has just hired another employee.

Honoré said she has carefully selected her collection, including new trade paperback best-sellers of literary merit, a section of the 48 best books of the 20th century, a banned books section (to support free speech, she says), many high-quality collectible books, and Shakespeare, of course.

There is a large collection of current and antique children's books, as well. Honoré said customers are happy to spend $100 for an original copy of "The Wizard of Oz" in the small, boxy, "Big Little Book" editions which sold for 10 cents in the 1930s.

"I figured out how to make it work," she says, noting that it no longer makes sense to try to sell current hardback books for $35 that are so much cheaper on the Internet.

In the back of her store at 163 E. Main St. is a special section of used, paperback classics priced at $2, sold without profit, she said, "so that everybody can read."

Scott Hutchins has owned and operated More Fun, which sells "comics for adults," for more than 25 years, the last 16 upstairs on the corner of Pioneer and East Main Streets.

Hutchins said he has begun to reduce an unwieldy inventory of many thousands of old and new comics and graphic novels, and that fewer and fewer tourists, once a big market for him, are coming upstairs these days.

There are fewer stores like his each year, as digital comics continue to expand, he said. "I don't think print is going away. ... It'll be kind of like radio and TV."

One bookstore, however, is going away. Ambrosia Books at 340 A St. is conducting a closing sale of its used classics, humanities and general titles until the end of the year.

"Fewer and fewer people want to leave their computer and go to the bookstore," owner Ashley Ofill said. "More and more, books are going to be gone." The exceptions, he said, are technical books, textbooks and children's books.

Also in the Railroad District, Sharon Davenport will reopen her Rogue Books business at a new location, 130 A St. No. 1, in late October. The new shop is larger, with a lower rent than the Fourth Street location she occupied for over two years.

These are "definitely challenging times" for a bookstore, she said. You have to "know what you are doing," especially regarding buying and pricing used books for sale. And in a small town, "you pretty much have to be whatever your customers want."

Asked why she keeps going in this business, she paused and replied, "Stubborn."

David Chuse is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at dgchuse@gmail.com.