BASALT, Colorado " Dick Merritt visited Town Center Booksellers in Basalt on Monday afternoon to look for book on Teddy Roosevelt. He left with a broken heart instead.
Merritt, one of the most loyal customers of the 4 1/2-year-old store that anchors Basalt's Midland Avenue, was told by general manager Fred Durham that the store will close at the end of the month.
"Gee whiz, we're going to miss you guys," Merritt told Durham and other store workers. Then he grabbed a cup of coffee to absorb the bombshell and reflect on what it means to Basalt.
To many, Town Center Booksellers is more than a retail store.
"It's a community gathering place," Merritt said while settling into one of the over-sized leather chairs perched in front of a gas fireplace off to the side of the store's entrance. "This bookstore here helps us keep the small-town character."
Discretionary spending disappears
Durham said the recession has punctuated some trends that already made it difficult for independent bookstores to survive. The store still enjoys decent foot traffic, but sales have sagged since September when U.S. consumer confidence plummeted as bad economic news piled up. The bookstore's customers, like consumers everywhere, kept a tighter grip on their pocketbooks.
"It's a little bit like people giving up $6 lattes at Starbucks," Durham said.
Bookstore owners Louise and Clay Bennett decided with Durham late last week that it was best to close the store. Durham informed some of the most loyal customers Monday.
"We have thoroughly enjoyed our relationship with the bookstore and the literary community of the Roaring Fork Valley," Louise Bennett, founder and principal owner, said in a news release. "We want to thank our patrons as well as the many authors and distinguished guests who made appearances and presentations at the store through the years. Your contributions helped make our experience with Town Center Booksellers meaningful and rewarding."
'Changing world' for bookstores
Durham said the recession isn't the only hurdle facing bookstores. They have been fighting off challenges from national chains for the last two decades. Now Amazon.com is taking its toll, and e-books through services like Kindle are expected to grow by leaps and bounds in popularity. Consumers have a choice of downloading e-books to their computer for $9 for something that Town Center Booksellers must charge $30.
The profit margin in books is razor thin, so independent stores cannot simply lower prices in the struggle to compete. Durham has always been of the opinion that "books would always be there." His opinion has rotated 180 degrees as of late.
"It's a changing world," Durham said. "I see that juggernaut approaching far faster than anyone imagined."
A New York Times article from 2008 said the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. fell from 4,700 in 1993 to 2,500 last year, citing statistics from the American Booksellers Association.
Durham said the Bennetts would consider selling the bookstore to someone who wants to keep operating it, but he doesn't have huge expectations.
Sam and Cheryl Wyly purchased Explore Booksellers and Bistro in Aspen in 2007 after founder Katherine Thalberg died and her heirs didn't want to operate the business. The Bennetts asked their customers to support the Wylys in "every way possible." They also noted that the Basalt area will be well served later this year when a much larger, modern public library opens.
Awesome Harry Potter party
Durham said the Bennetts, like the staff, are "heart-broken" over the decision to close. "We're sort of proud of what we accomplished here," he said.
The events include presentations by visiting and resident writers, forums for book clubs, public meet-and-greets for town manager candidates, poetry readings and theme events like a costume party to celebrate the release of the last book in the Harry Potter series. There was a lot of diversity.
Durham said someone else coined one of his favorite sayings, "A bookstore is like an alternative to a tavern."
The Bennetts were also major contributors to the Aspen Writers' Foundation.
The store is located at 211 Midland Ave., under the signature clock tower. The Bennetts gutted the interior and renovated the exterior, creating an attractive, historic-looking brick building. The interior space has 2,000 square feet of retail space along with some office space. There are no plans yet for a successor to the bookstore.
The closure is tentatively set for Saturday, March 28. Hours of operation will be pared back.
"It's definitely a sad day," said Basalt Mayor Leroy Duroux Monday after stopping by to talk with Durham. He said he can understand the decision, considering the recession, and he fears other businesses might also fall victim.
"You just hope and pray for the best. It's probably not going to be the only one," Duroux said.