Photo courtesy of Buffalo Street Books' Facebook page

Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Ithaca Week, a weekly magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.


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Phoenix Old Used and Rare Books in Freeville N.Y. announced it would close this summer after 30 years in business.

The bookshop opened in 1985. Owner George Schillinger has seen a decline in book sales since 2005, a dip he said is part of a larger trend.

“I think people don’t buy books the way they used to. We only have Barnes and Noble left as far as national chains. [The decline] is everywhere, its not just here.”

Bookstore retail sales are declining nationally—down 2.2. percent in February 2015 compared to the same time last year.

While most Americans still read print books, e-books are gradually growing in popularity, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.

“I think books will prevail though the digital age,” Kaela Bamberger, an Ithaca College alumna who hosts a local reading group, said. “I love books as opposed to e-books. I feel like carrying around an e-book is a disrespect to what the text is burdened with.”

What’s happening in Tompkins?

Bookstore owners in Tompkins County have noticed the digital shift and report a decline in the sheer number of print bookstores.

“I’m always sorry to hear when independent stores close,” Jack Goldman, owner of the Bookery in Dewitt Mall, said. “There used to be almost 10 book stores in Ithaca and all of them were thriving.”

Today, there are only three used book stores left in Ithaca—the Bookery, Autumn Leaves and Colophon Books—and two new book bookstores, Buffalo Street Books and Barnes and Noble.

Book selling is historically “a labor of love,” Asha Sanaker, general manager of Buffalo Street Books, said. As a result, she said, people who own bookstores want to sell the books they love, but this can often hurt them.

“Lots of bookstores have fallen prey to that problem that they’re not really staying at the forefront of understanding that they’re a retail environment where they have to constantly be tweaking their inventory and constantly tweaking their ordering and constantly tweaking out old stuff,” Sanaker said.

Owners partially blamed websites like Amazon for the decline, which posted an annual revenue of $5.25 billion in book sales for 2014. Amazon allows people to have books delivered to their doors rather than going to a local bookstore. And, the Amazon price is often cheaper, bookstore owners said.

“It’s certainly dismaying when you have a good book that I used to buy for $5.00, you see on Amazon for a penny,” Goldman said. “Even Borders, a big chain store, couldn’t stand up to the competition that Amazon maintained.”

Photo courtesy of Buffalo Street Books’ Facebook page
Photo courtesy of Buffalo Street Books’ Facebook page

Despite business moving online, some bookstores are still thriving. The Book Barn of the Finger Lakes in Dryden has seen consistent business, even with location problems, owner Vladamir Dragan said.

“People in Ithaca don’t think I exist,” Dragan said. “However, people come from all across the United States to see my selection. I have not seen a decline over the years.”

Most used bookstores are filled with books and are sometimes confusing to consumers, Sanaker said. After adjusting the layout of Buffalo Street Books, Sanaker said she saw an improvement in sales.

“[People] are used to walking in to places like Barnes and Nobles where they can see a vista all the way across the store and they aren’t going to get lost in some random corner somewhere and not remember how they got there,” Sanaker said.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.