Sharon Ager apologizes for “the mess” behind her, which looks more like a meticulously organized library than a bookstore preparing to close.
She co-owns Crossroad Books, 2803 E. Hamilton Ave., with her husband, Mark Patterson, and the two started a closeout sale in April with the intent to shut down in June to focus only on selling books online.
“The only way we can survive is to get our overhead costs down,” Ager said.
Downward pressure on the price of common used books from online giant Amazon and bulk booksellers played a big part in the store closing and now planning to focus its online business on niche markets where there’s still a margin to be made.
“We’re just going to keep the cream-of-the-crop online,” Ager said.
That’ll mean rarer books and harder-to-find titles, she noted, and specializing in categories such as Wisconsin literature and military history that have done well at the store.
Ager will miss the customers, including regulars who occasionally bring in cookies, trade garden plants or just call to gab every now and then. She hopes they’ll keep in touch when the business migrates entirely to the Internet.
Selling books online isn’t new to Crossroad — Ager and Patterson have done business on the Internet for 22 years.
“We’ve always sold more online than in the shop,” she said.
While the store just announced closing in spring, Ager said the plan to shift to online-only sales started about eight years ago. At the time, the store was still a fixture in downtown and then moved in 2014 to the smaller storefront in a strip mall on Hamilton Avenue. Aside from downsizing their footprint, the store also chose the move because it’s now just a couple doors down from Pak Mail — a handy arrangement for shipping out books to online customers.
New bookseller ideas
While she and her husband are looking forward to finally taking some real vacations after having their lives tied to running a store, Ager believes there is still a market in Eau Claire for an independent bookstore. But she said it’ll take the ideas that a new generation of booksellers have used — such as special events, blogs, bookmobiles and pop-up stores — to attract customers.
“People are getting really creative to decide how to survive in this market,” she said.
Among those people is 29-year-old Elizabeth de Cleyre, a recent arrival to Eau Claire who is putting some of those ideas into action with the aim of opening a bookstore.
Fleeing the increasingly unaffordable housing prices in Portland, Ore., she and her husband moved in December to Eau Claire — a city they first became acquainted with from last year’s Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival.
“The literary scene here is really incredible,” said de Cleyre, who works from home for a Texas-based nonfiction book publisher.
Shortly after moving here, she started a book club that met at Red’s Mercantile, which quickly outgrew the downtown shop when its membership jumped from 25 to 50 people.
She also made friends with Margaret Leonard and Jill Heinke Moen, two Eau Claire women in their 30s who share her interest in starting a local bookstore and have skills that would come in handy.
De Cleyre has a working knowledge of the publishing world, Leonard studied in literature and marketing, and Heinke Moen has experience handling the finances for a nonprofit organization she founded.
Combined they’ve created Dotters Books, which gets its name from a Scandinavian spelling of “daughters.” But before jumping into opening a brick-and-mortar store, they’re planning other ways of selling books and learning more about the tastes of local readers.
“What we’re really planning to do is focus on events,” de Cleyre said.
Dotters Books will be part of Red’s Back Alley Market, a group of vendors invited to set up shop behind Red’s Mercantile, 224 N. Dewey St., for the day on Thursday, June 15.
“We’re trying to grow slower and more organically. Pop-ups are a great way to do that,” de Cleyre said.
She also is eager to start up additional book clubs.
The Dotters trio is working on plans to create a permanent store, but haven’t yet set a date when they’d open one. For now Dotters Books is easiest to find on Instagram — a social media service that allows people to share photos online — or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
De Cleyre also is getting further enmeshed into the literary community — making connections with the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, the Chippewa Valley Book Festival and literary programs at UW-Eau Claire. She also is involved in several presentations and mixer events this week as part of Creative Economy Week in Eau Claire.
While Amazon’s influence remains over booksellers, another technological advancement in publishing had less of an impact than bookstores initially dreaded.
The introduction of e-readers — Amazon Kindles, Nooks and tablet computers — struck fear into the traditional book industry when they were introduced years ago.
While they did cut into the market of physical books, both Ager and de Cleyre said those devices’ impact was less than expected and has since tapered off. Ager said they still do seem to be used by voracious readers — people who can devour multiple paperbacks in a week — as evidenced by fewer used copies of newer books that come into her store.
De Cleyre said she’s seen statistics that make her more hopeful about her plans for Dotters Books.
“There’s actually been an uptick in independent bookstores of the last two to three years,” she said.
And even though it’s the competition for smaller bookstores, the fact that Eau Claire still has a major bookstore is a testament to the area’s demand for books.
When it looked like Eau Claire was going to lose its one major bookstore in 2011, another company saw a still profitable market for selling books.
Borders announced the closing of 399 stores — including the one at 4030 Commonwealth Ave. — in July 2011 as the company was going through bankruptcy. But the Eau Claire location was among 14 former Borders stores that Birmingham, Ala.-based Books-A-Million saw potential in, purchased to reopen under its own brand and continues to run today.
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