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Written off?

With more readers opting to get their books online or via Kindle, a bookstore isn’t the investment it used to be

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / May 31, 2011

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My friends are trying to sell the New England Mobile Book Fair, the area’s largest, and finest, independent bookstore. My prayers are with them. I cannot imagine a worse time to buy a bookstore.

I remember when it was fashionable to buy wineries in Sonoma County, a diverting pastime for the idle rich. There was a saying: How do you make $1 million in the wine business? You spend $10 million. Bookstores are the new wineries.

Why am I so pessimistic? Because I no longer hear the siren song of the Gutenbourgeois, a delightful coinage of former Harper’s contributing editor Paul Ford. You know who they are: Harvard library director Robert Darnton, essayist Sven Birkerts, and, until recently, me. People who drone on about the sanctity of the printed page, the “Republic of Letters,’’ the artifact of the book, yadda yadda yadda.

Why the course correction? I love books, I buy books, and I just can’t make the case for paying double for a product that is, after all, ephemeral. Case in point: About two weeks ago I read a selling review of Vladimir Sorokin’s brilliant anti-Putin satire, “Day of the Oprichnik.’’ My library didn’t have the book. So I made an extremely irrational decision: I wandered into a bookstore and paid the cover price of $23.

What was I thinking? Amazon would have shipped me the book for $19.63. Or, had I mustered the energy to climb one flight of stairs to my son’s room, I could have activated his unused Kindle and bought the book for $10.99. With no carbon footprint! Bill McKibben would be so pleased.

I bought two other books in the same week, a paperback copy of Justin Cronin’s vampire-free novel “The Summer Guest,’’ mainly because I felt sorry for the one benighted bookseller in Wolfeboro, N.H. I also bought Randy Shilts’s classic, “And the Band Played On,’’ in Boston, because I wanted to read and own it. The minute I fire up my son’s Kindle, or borrow my wife’s, which is rarely available, the book trade loses beaucoup cash.

Don’t take my word for it. Borders, which had lovely bookstores, is in bankruptcy. Fast-buck vultures are circling Barnes & Noble, primarily interested in its revamped Nook e-book reader, which may end up playing Avis to the Kindle’s Hertz in the fast-growing electronic book biz. “You look at all this data, and it’s difficult to say with any certainty where the book business is going,’’ says former Washington Post journalist Bradley Graham. “It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also kind of exciting.’’

Graham and his wife recently purchased Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s premier independent bookstores. What was he thinking? “We’re not a dying breed,’’ Graham insists. “There are still enough of us who believe in books to invest small fortunes and the rest of their lives in this wonderful business.’’

So how do you make money with a bookstore, given that you won’t be moving a lot of Jodi Picoult novels at list price? There are ways, many of them counterintuitive for the person on the street. Sell used books, for instance. Brookline Booksmith does, and so does the Harvard Book Store. Buy cheap, sell dear. It works.

Or compete with Amazon and sell books online, off your website. Politics and Prose does that, and so does Jeffrey Mayersohn’s Harvard Book Store, which in many cases can deliver books faster than Amazon — by bike, no less. Now McKibben is really happy!

Mayersohn co-owns HBS with his wife and says the store was modestly profitable last year. That is more than most wineries can claim. They have an expensive print-on-demand machine, called an Espresso, which in theory can make you a copy of almost any book you might want. But that’s just in theory. You can’t buy Graham’s book about the Star Wars missile shield, “Hit to Kill,’’ and you can’t buy the juvenilia of Alex Beam, either.

Here is another way for a bookstore to make money: Pass the hat. Facing an unpleasant lease renewal in 2012, Newtonville Books pressed its customers to pay $50 each for memberships that included store discounts and perks to be named later. The store oversold its target of 500 memberships, quickly. “It wasn’t an ultimatum,’’ says co-owner Jaime Clarke, “but it was a head’s up. We wanted to get some kind of response from the neighborhood. If people would rather shop at Amazon, fine, but we were happy to learn that people cared about the bookstore.’’

Unlike other indies, Clarke isn’t selling books off his website, and he isn’t selling Google e-books, either. “I need you to come down here and buy paperbacks and hardcovers,’’ he says. “You’re not doing me a favor by going to my website.’’

Good luck to all. You will need it.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.