If the current books and periodicals didn’t give away the date, a shopper at the eponymous bookstore on Oxford’s Square might fancy himself browsing two generations ago.
The two-story main store has the high ceilings and balcony that were part of life in the South before the advent of air conditioning. Store employees are always near and eager to make recommendations.
But this is 2009, and it’s been more than 30 years since Richard Howorth and his wife, Lisa, decided their hometown needed its own bookstore and opened Square Books in a cramped upstairs shop next to City Hall.
The business has since grown and moved from the original upstairs location: the well-known Square Books is in the former Blaylock Drug Store building on the southwest corner of the Square; Off Square Books, with its selection of “remainders,” sits on the southeast corner; and Square Books Jr., for the kids, is downstairs in the original building.
In those same 30-plus years, big-box stores and online retailers have carved out a huge chunk of the book business.
“Everything has changed,” Howorth said. “What keeps us going is doing the same thing – having books that we think people in this kind of market are interested in, having books that we are enthusiastic about and books that we can recommend to readers with a genuine sense of enthusiasm. We feel like we will continue to have a relationship with customers built on trust.”
What gave him the nerve to open three stores ?
“It’s really one bookstore in three buildings,” Howorth corrected. “What gave me the nerve to have a lot of additional overhead when it would make a lot more sense to have all this under one roof? I don’t know, but I kind of like having them in different locations all over the Square.”
Howorth insists Square Books is healthy.
“I think the chains are having a really hard time: Their sales are declining 14, 15 percent, and ours are down maybe 1 percent,” he said.
It’s the myriad of publishing houses that he’s worried about. With digitization and discount demands from Internet giants, he says they’re squeezed beyond mere healthy competition.
“We have publishers operating in very, very narrow profit margins right now because of the poor economy, and they’re trying to maintain a platform of traditional book publishing – doing it the same way they’ve always done it – while starting up on a parallel track their digital operation,” Howorth said.
“You’ll hear people – especially people whose name sounds like a river in South America – say that this is expanding the market,” he said. “That is what exactly what the two major chains said in the early 1990s when they were building all these giant, big-box retail bookstores. That was never true.
“Barnes & Noble and Borders are larger than the 10 largest publishers combined, so they began to dictate terms, and you’re now beginning to see the same thing happen in the Internet sector. The people creating these platforms are dictating terms.”
If publishers find a way to survive the higher costs and lower margins, Howorth says it’s actually a good time to be an independent bookseller.
“I think books in hard-copy format are going to remain appealing, because a book – a paper-and-ink product – is like a bicycle or sailboat: It’s one of man’s few perfect inventions,” he said. “The Kindle is not going to replace that.”
Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal