COLUMBIA — Since Annette Kolling-Buckley opened Columbia Books in 1977, she hasn't significantly changed what she sells: mainly used, collectible, out-of-print and hard-to-find books. But she has changed how she sells them.
Today, about 60 percent of the books she sells are purchased online.
Acorn Books, in the Market Place Antique Mall at 1100 Business Loop 70 W and a shelf at Lakota Coffee Co., 24 S. Ninth St.
Adams Walls of Books, 214 N. Eighth St.
Columbia Books, 1907 Gordon St.
Get Lost! Bookstore, 8 S. Ninth St.
Nancy's Trade-A-Book, 21 Conley Road, Suite Q
Village Books, 1808 Paris Road
"The Internet is an increasingly important part of the market,” Kolling-Buckley said. "A man in Japan bought a book from me because of the photos I took of it with my iPhone."
Independent bookstores have had it rough in recent years. First, big booksellers such as Borders and Barnes & Noble were able to sell new books at lower prices. Then mass-merchandisers such as Walmart and Target started selling new books, especially bestsellers, even more cheaply. Today, new books can be bought online for a fraction of what they cost in any bricks-and-mortar store — chain or independent.
“If you’re not shopping at Barnes & Noble, you’re at Walmart,” said Doug Wilson, co-owner with Becky Asher of Village Books, 1808 Paris Road.
Still, independent bookstores persevere.
"Independent bookstores have to be nimble and quick on their feet," Wilson said.
Village Books sells most books at a discount. It also has a trade-a-book policy, in which customers buy books at half the publisher’s price and then sell them back to the store at half of that. The store also sells new books at 25 percent off and handles special orders.
Although it moved from one side of the Jo-Ann Fabrics shopping plaza to the other, Wilson's shop has been located in the same strip mall for six years. His customers are often familiar faces who stop in as much for conversation as for book-browsing.
"We're the bookstore equivalent of 'Cheers,'" Wilson said, referring to the sitcom bar where everybody knows your name.
Columbia Books was on South Ninth Street for almost 30 years before moving to South Providence Road. In early 2009, Kolling-Buckley moved her many thousands of books to a building she had built at 1907 Gordon St., off Paris Road.
Kolling-Buckley and her son, Clayton Weaver, who has joined her in the business, know the people who come in by what they buy. But they work to keep even the online book-buying experience personalized. The store’s updated website is compatible with iPhone applications, allowing customers to browse the books online, Kolling-Buckley said.
"Businesses that can make a name for themselves online can make it the same as an in-store experience," she said.
Ken Green has been selling used and rare books primarily online since Acorn Books' shop on South Ninth Street closed in March 2007 to make room for the Missouri Theatre expansion. He and his wife, Linda Green, also have a self-serve booth at Market Place Antique Mall, 1100 Business Loop 70 W., and a shelf of books available for purchase at Lakota Coffee Co., 24 S. Ninth St.
Ken Green said they've been selling online for six years, and it's been successful. Like Columbia Books and many independent booksellers, Acorn Books sells through platforms such as AbeBooks and half.com. Many other independent booksellers also use Amazon for online sales. Green, who has run Acorn Books for almost 25 years, considers them allies in the business rather than competitors.
Kolling-Buckley recalled that when she began selling books online in 1991, she got calls from Amazon every day, asking if she had an out-of-print book a customer had requested.
“You can’t buy a 300-year-old book at a chain store,” she said.
Kolling-Buckley knows there are some books she’ll never see again. She came across a first edition copy of E.B. White's "Charlotte’s Web," still in its dust jacket. The book came from the estate of Stuart Wyeth Campbell, a wealthy businessman from St. Joseph.
Many independent bookstores, such as Columbia Books, belong to national trade organizations like the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA). Others belong to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a not-for-profit trade organization for independent booksellers that deal in mostly new books.
Currently, the ABA has 1,410 company members with 1,700 locations, said Meg Smith, the ABA's membership and marketing officer. General membership has dropped 30 percent in recent years due to the recession, Smith said. But there has been a slight increase lately in numbers and success as members look for new ways to grow their business.
“The ABA spends a great deal of our time and resources on education programs ... presenting sessions on marketing, financial operations, digital issues and other topics, to ensure our members are in the best possible position to deal with any kind of competition or challenging financial climate,” Smith said.
Wilson at Village Books said sales dropped when the economy went south a couple of years ago but then rose again.
Kolling-Buckley said that because books aren't a necessity, the sale of new books has been affected, and people are buying only one new book at a time or are buying used books.
Collectibles still sell well, she said, because the people who tend to buy them still have the means to do so.