When the iconic Harvard Square children's book shop Curious George & Friends announced that it would close after 15 years of business last week, many took it as a sign that what has long been considered inevitable was at last approaching: the doom of independent bookstores.
After all, went the reasoning, in the era of the internet, e-readers, video games, and smart phones, the need for physical bookstores (or, for that matter, physical books) hardly seemed in demand.
However, West Roxbury's two premiere independent book sellers say their businesses are indeed sustainable. Although their reasons differ based on their store, the owners of Pazzo Books and Seek Books are connected in both believing that a knowledge of their respective markets is what will continue to drive them forward.
"I actually think this is a time that independent book sellers could capitalize," said Seek owner Brad Kinne.
Kinne, who has been in business in West Roxbury for two years, said that his genre-specific store should continue to attract fans of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His shop also offers some sports memorabilia, vintage comic books, and a non-fiction selection of philosophy, psychology, and comparative religions. Kinne said the shop is geared at a specific market, a market that continues to come to his store.
"Unless you're a big chain in a big space, how can you possibly carry everything?" Kinne said. "And big chains do have selections of all that stuff, but obviously not enough to keep them in business." Kinne cited Borders as an example of one of these big stores, which has notably been closing several Boston-area stores during the last year, most recently Downtown Crossing, and has been facing financial difficulties for several years.
Instead, said Kinne, independent genre-specific shops have the advantage of being able to attract and cultivate a specific audience. If they set up their business the right way, they should keep coming back, he said.
A large part of cultivating that audience depends not only on the books that are on-sale, but also the atmosphere of the shop. Seek Books features vintage decorations and horror paraphanelia, as well as a shop cat -- Asimov -- named for the famed mid-1900s sci-fi writer.
"I built the kind of store I would drive two hours to get to," Kinne said.
Kinne suggested that other genre-specific shops could go over well, particularly a mystery novel shop.
Over at Pazzo Books, owner Tom Nealon specializes in rare used books. His strategy in adapting to the internet age, he said, has in fact been to use the internet. Nealon estimates that he does 75 percent of his business online, with foot traffic being fairly low.
"[The Internet]'s either going to put you under or you've got to use it like everyone else," Nealon said.
Today, several non-profits and charitable organizations offer free books through the internet, and Nealon is aware of this. Selling used books "at $10 bucks a hit" isn't as regular an occurence for a shop like his as it once was. As such, his primary strategy has been to turn his business towards selling high-end rare books through the shop's website.
Both Nealon and Kinne noted that having set up shop in West Roxbury also helped. Curious George was partially forced to close because their prime location demanded a monthly rent of $15,000. West Roxbury shops, both owners said, are much more affordable; Nealon, in fact, moved Pazzo to West Roxbury from Roslindale three years ago because the rent was more affordable. Though West Roxbury may be less conveniently located than other high-cost Boston shops, this is less an issue for Pazzo's online market and Seek's devoted genre-hungry fan base.
If they're right, they may be able to hold off their doom -- that pesky inevitability -- indefinitely.