Two decades ago, the story took a grim turn as larger and stronger competitors with more resources entered the arena. The outcome seemed inevitable. With the expansion of chain bookstores and the introduction of digital book sales, small, independent book shops appeared doomed.
But, the inevitable demise voiced by industry leaders and speculators was premature.
“There was some fear that large book chains would take over. And, if they didn’t succeed, the electronic books would take over. One way or another it seemed independent stores didn’t have a chance,” said Bob Kahlstorf, who co-owns Branch Books in Hartselle with his wife, Cheryl. “They were wrong. Some people do love their e-books, but there are others who still love the smell and feel of real books.”
In the era of the farm to table and shop local movements, independent bookstores, in the past five years, established a larger foothold in the market.
According to the Association of American Publishers, digital book sales saw a slight decrease from 2017 to 2018 while the sales of hardcovers and paperbacks increased. In June, the American Booksellers Association reported its highest numbers in 10 years with 1,887 members and 2,524 store locations.
From his shop on Alabama 67, James Owen, who opened Priceville Discount Books in 1987, witnessed the economic roller coaster ride independent stores experienced firsthand.
“The Kindle didn’t help any,” Owen said. “But, I found there are two types of people. You have people who read and then you have book lovers. There’s a big difference. People who read, they can read on a Kindle or a ketchup bottle. Then there are people who come in here that are passionate about actual books, like we are.”
Shopping carts filled with hundreds of books sit outside Priceville Discount Books, giving visitors a glimpse of what waits inside. Piles of books, which Owen prefers to call “previously enjoyed” rather than “used,” overflow from the shelves stacked as high as Owen can reach.
Started out of the waiting room of his mother’s tanning salon in 1987 with 4,000 of Owen’s personal books, Priceville Discount Books’ stock now totals more than 400,000.
“There are so many people who walk in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this,’ because they love digging through the books,” said Chrissie Dunham, who works with Owen. “We like to tell people you have to get down amongst the books. And, truly, you do. Or you can just ask. As amazing as it is, somebody can walk in and say, ‘Do you have this book,’ and James literally knows if he has it and where it is.”
With stacks upon stacks and rows upon rows of books, the store is like a book maze — a place one can get lost for hours on end. That is how Dunham got to know Owen.
“My husband and I moved down from Michigan in 2005, and the first thing we did was look for a bookstore. We found this little piece of heaven right here. We would spend hours here,” Dunham said. “Two years ago, I started working here. We have so much fun. How could we not? We are surrounded by the most wonderful things in the world.”
Amongst the “previously enjoyed” collection, Owen stocks multiple copies of books on schools’ reading lists.
“I have a lot of books in stock that you just can’t get anymore, anywhere," Owen said.
Like Owen, David and Melinda Jones, owners of Second Read Books in downtown Decatur, carry books on schools’ required reading lists for a discounted price.
“There are plenty of perfectly good, gently used books around,” Melinda Jones said while cradling the shop’s newest addition, Callie the Bookstore Cat, a 12-week-old rescue.
The husband and wife opened the quaint shop on Second Avenue Southeast in March 2018, fulfilling a long-standing dream.
“When we travel, every town we go to, we always look for a bookstore. Every city, if you look really hard, you can find a used bookstore and each one has its own character,” Melinda Jones said. “Last year, we decided it was time to pursue our dream of opening a used bookstore in Decatur.”
Inspired by ideas from Pinterest, the Joneses created a warm and inviting atmosphere with shelving units built by David Jones and sanded and stained by Melinda Jones. They transformed drawers from Habitat Restore into hanging shelves and used pages of old books and library cards as decorations. With damaged books, the duo created a mural depicting George R.R. Martin’s quote, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
“We are still trying to find our niche, but I think we are getting there,” said Jones, who, along with books, carries baby blankets and T-shirts. “Yes, we want to get the diehard book lover, but we might also get a casual reader, who might come in for something else and then start looking at the books.”
They host local authors, organized a monthly children’s story time with Magical Memories and partnered with Cross-Eyed Owl Brewery to hold a book club.
“One of the things I didn’t expect is many of our customers have become like family. We had some customers to our home for Christmas and they brought me chicken noodle soup at home when I was sick. This has become much more than a bookstore. We have been so blessed by this community,” Jones said.
While the store attracts customers from Decatur, Second Read Books also brings in people from Huntsville, Madison and Athens.
“The traffic of people coming from out of town has really amazed me. It just shows how much people love reading here,” Jones said. “And not just reading, they love actual books. They still want the feel of a book in their hands. We’re even finding that is true with the younger generations also.”
Bob and Cheryl Kahlstorf, who opened Morgan County’s newest used bookstore, Branch Books on Nance Ford Road, in June, agreed.
“There are a lot of book lovers here. I’m very encouraged that the young people are reading. They have been our biggest costumer group so far. Sometimes you get the idea from the culture that books are dying out and no one, specifically young people, reads anymore. That’s just not true,” Bob Kahlstorf said.
Earlier this year, the Kahlstorfs decided to transform the space they used to store books into an actual bookstore. An old etching of Charles Dickens’ study as it looked the day he died hangs above the office where the Kahlstorfs sorted through and priced thousands of books.
The duo estimated 20,000 books from their 150,000- to 250,000-book collection are displayed at the store. Most of the collection, the Kahlstorfs said, stemmed from Cheryl’s consignment store.
“When she sold the store, the new owner didn’t want to have anything to do with the book section, so we ended up with thousands of books,” Bob Kahlstorf said. “We built up our collection at estate sales, with trade-ins and at thrift stores. It’s like a treasure hunt.”
For the Kahlstorfs, the opening of Branch Books symbolizes the next chapter in their love story.
“We met because of books. We met on eHarmony. In my profile picture, I was standing in front of my library and the leather bound books. She liked that a lot,” Bob Kahlstorf said. “We are both book lovers and have been wanting to open a store for years. This location is wonderful. It’s central to churches, schools, restaurants and the park.”
Along with Branch Books, Priceville Discount Books and Second Read Books, the Friends of the Decatur Public Library operates a used book room.
“This is an exciting time," Bob Kahlstorf said. "Independent bookstores are making a comeback. I think people will just always love books. It’s an escape. You can get into a book and be transported into a whole different world or you can learn something or be inspired. It’s kind of magical."