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Local independent bookstores thrive in digital age

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Posted: Thursday, December 9, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 2:36 pm, Thu Dec 9, 2010.

Inside a corner store on East Kettleman Lane, there is a place where you can find a Hulk Hogan stuffed doll next to a shelf with Mark Twain. While you browse the titles of used books stacked higher than the average person, a brown and gray cat named Booker winds a figure-eight through your legs. It’s The Book Lady, and it’s Lodi’s oldest bookstore.

In Downtown Lodi, Tom Kohlhepp of Tom’s Used Books winds through the thousands of books on the shelves of his tidy store helping customers find what they are looking for, just as he has for the last 14 years.

In Galt, Hooked On Books is establishing itself as a destination for readers on a revitalized South Lincoln Way.

The Book Lady has survived during the age of iPads and Amazon by selling used books at affordable prices. Like other independent bookstores in Galt and Lodi, The Book Lady has remained in business because the owner is able to work with customers to track down desired titles.

Independent bookstores also offer a place to reminisce about favorite novels and characters while finding books that make new ones. In an age of immediacy, bookstores serve as a refuge where people can browse at their leisure and make thoughtful purchases. Although digital devices enable readers to have hundreds of books at their fingertips, independent bookstore owners have either embraced the technology or found ways to diversify.

“The store is basically the same setup as my mom had,” said Cook. “But now I made the front room a place where I sell collectibles.”

Using technology to survive

Other merchants use the Internet to diversify.

Kohlhepp started selling his more expensive books on www.amazon.com 12 years ago, and said it’s helped his business markedly. He regularly ships his orders using a nearby Post Office and said his location is ideal to supplement his online sales.

“The advantage of not driving across town is the pleasure of meandering down School Street,” he said of taking his books purchased online to the Post Office to be shipped.

Besides a large selection of used books, Kohlhepp also carries the latest releases at his brick and mortar location in Downtown. He uses the same wholesaler as corporate bookstores like Borders.

“It get the same titles,” he said. “It just takes a day longer because of shipping.”

Lodi native Marie Barton recently moved to Galt after living in Oregon for years, and opened Hooked On Books on South Lincoln Way seven months ago. Upon receiving trade-ins, Barton logs each individual International Standard Book Number in her computer to keep a close eye on her inventory. She also details any defects the books may have. The books are then categorized and displayed in Barton’s immaculate store, which greets customers with aromas of crisp pages.

Her reasoning for opening the store in downtown Galt was simple.

“Galt needed a bookstore,” Barton said. “The motivation was that people in Galt had to go to either Lodi or Elk Grove to buy books.”

But Barton said she doesn’t see the other area bookstores as competition.

“I see the other stores as complementary,” she said. “If I don’t have something someone is looking for, I will tell them to call Tom (Kohlhepp).”

Barton isn’t new to the game, either. The owner of Hooked On Books formerly owned a bookstore for seven years in Oregon.

Inside the 1,100 square-foot Hooked on Books in Galt, a combination of 12,000 novels, cookbooks, children’s books and science fiction sagas line the shelves.

“One of the benefits of being independent is my stock is always rotating,” Barton said. “I get trade-ins frequently. Ninety percent of my stock comes from trade-ins.”

When Tom’s Books opened 14 years ago, Kohlepp said there were four bookstores in Lodi. As the years passed and the stores dwindled, he said it became more beneficial for the stores that stayed open.

“Now we don’t have to split the pie as many ways,” he said.

What you will find online

Part of the reason stores went away was the dawn of the digital age, but the stores that survived learn to coexist with new technology. Like Kohlhepp, Barton uses the Internet to supplement her sales.

Some of Barton’s books are sold online because she doesn’t expect them to sell in the store. She pulled out a street directory of Norwich, Conn. printed in 1866 to make her example.

“This book costs $100 and likely won’t sell in the store,” she said. “But it could be very useful for someone doing genealogical research. This is something you won’t find in Borders.”

Merchants use sites like Amazon to act as a middleman to connect buyers and sellers. The seller is able to use the power of the Internet without having to pay the high fees of registering a domain name or building a website, Barton said. Buyers enjoy it because they can compare prices and find rare literary gems.

Here for foreseeable future

Barton senses stability for independently owned used bookstores because of how little books have fundamentally changed over years. Unlike music — which is available on vinyl, cassette, compact disc and digitally — books are still printed words on pages that are bound together.

While iPads and Kindles — digital devices that allow readers to make the print on the screen larger and carry a large library in one hand — are a recent development, Barton isn’t convinced all the technological kinks have been addressed in those tools.

“You can pass a hard copy of a book from person to person, but can’t with an iPad,” she said. “And what happens when your Kindle battery dies on a long flight to Hawaii?”

While it may seem that technological advancements like the iPad would threaten bookstores, Meg Smith, membership and marketing officer of the American Booksellers Association, said the opposite is true.

“Because of these devices, we are seeing a renewed interest in the reading of content or books,” she said. Since not all books are available on digital devices, the need for hard copies won’t end any time soon, she said.

Independent bookstores are also places for fellow readers to gather, Smith said.

“A bookstore is an intellectual center,” she said. “People love and need a place to gather and have a free discourse of ideas.”

Kohlhepp said he enjoys conversing with both loyal customers and casual readers.

“Most of my customers are more educated than I am,” he said.

Even though countless record stores and video stores have gone belly-up due to technological changes, local independent bookstore owners aren’t worried about suffering the same fate. Part of the security for bookstores comes from people wanting to know what a book looks like before they purchase, Barton said.

“You will go online and it will the say the book may have highlighting or writing in it,” she said. “When I buy a book, I want to know for sure.”

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@lodinews. com.

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