The Journey

Spokane Bookstores Thriving in National Recession
By Eric Crowell

Despite the economic downturn, Kellie Malsom's business is doing well. She owns Book Traders on Garland Avenue and for the past two and a half years, his shop like other locally-owned, used bookstores in the area have been able to capitalize on the recession. At the same time, big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders are struggling to survive in the down economy.

At first glance you might think that the smaller bookstores are the first to go, but their prices can be much lower than those at new bookstores. At least in Spokane, the national recession seems to have had more of a negative effect on the chain bookstores than local ones.

Frank Breckenridge of 2nd Look Books on the South Hill said his business has remained steady, and he hasn't had to raise prices at all on the roughly 150,000 books he has in stock—one of the largest independent bookstores in town. Perhaps this is due to the large inventory, along with the fact that many customers come in to trade books for credit.

One of the biggest strengths of used bookstores is the trade-in credit payment system that many use. A potential customer will come to the store and turn in unwanted books for credit, and can then use that credit for future purchases at the store. Usually, books can't be bought outright with credit, though some used bookstores offer substantial discounts on books paid with credit. Using credit, paperbacks can sometimes be purchased for less than one dollar.

Rae's Book Exchange on N. Division St. has two discount ranks: one with books for a dollar and another for 50 cents. Store clerk Treva Chastain said business had been about the same as usual. In this regard, used bookstores may be seen as recession-proof. They survive in a normal economy, and thrive when times are tough.

"Prices have stayed the same," said Chastain. "We've had the 50-cent rack forever."

She believes used bookstores haven't had to adjust their prices very much even as new books become more and more costly.

Cal Emerson, proprietor of Cal's Books since 1978, said the weather change has had a larger effect on business than the general economy. He hasn't had to increase prices on any of the 20,000 books he sells in his small store on N. Hamilton Street.

Stores the size of Emerson's have also benefited from the Internet. Cal's Books has an storefront, allowing it to reach millions of potential customers around the world., another aggregator of small bookstores now owned by Amazon, has 110 million books for sale from over 13,000 booksellers across the globe. Even chain stores like Hastings are starting to offer used books, as they are much cheaper than new books, which can be very convenient in a slow economy.

The recession has brought Malsom's Book Traders a lot more customers recently. At a store where $50 hardcover books are often sold for $1.50, it's no wonder business is booming. Book Traders has more trade-in credit accounts than other Spokane bookstores, and most of Malsom's customers buy their books that way, often paying 60 cents for a trade paperback.

"We get so much free publicity. It's unbelievable," Malsom said.

But for the retired Malsom, the book-selling business is purely a hobby. He said making a profit off of his love for books is just an added benefit.

"I enjoy being here too much to let someone else do it," Malsom said.

Today, Book Traders has about 40,000 to 50,000 books in stock—about three times as many books as the previous owner, who ran the store for 25 years before Malsom arrived. With all the surplus books lying around the bookstore, Malsom said a third room will be opened to expand the shop this spring.

As the financial crisis around the country and across the world worsens, people are trying to find alternate ways of getting what they want—including books. As the largest bookstores around the country are trying to figure out how to survive, local ones like Book Traders are simply trying to decide where to put their excess books. It's an annoyance independent bookstores are probably happy to get used to.