At a time when the future of independent bookstores hangs in the balance, the owner of Laguna Beach’s Latitude 33 Bookshop hopes to tip the scales locally by shopping for a new proprietor of a certain character.
Owner Tom Ahern concedes that sales have been down for the iconic Ocean Avenue store he opened 15 years ago. Even so, the bookseller, who turns 70 this year, said that the main reason for his departure is his need to spend more time caring for his wife, 12 years his senior, who suffers from congestive heart failure.
He hopes to find a buyer who “cares enough about books” and about operating a really good bookstore to overlook the financial downside of what has been his labor of love.
“This community needs bookstores,” agreed Walter Boice, who owns Coast Hardware and manages the bookstore’s property for its owner, Realonomics. Their intent is to set terms that will retain a bookstore in the space and to negotiate with Ahern and any potential buyer with that in mind, Boice said.
Competition from big box stores and e-tailers such as Amazon.com over the past 10 years, coupled with the more recent economic downturn, has meant Latitude 33 just managed to break even, Ahern said.
“It’s been a very tough year, and we’re hearing that at different locations around the country,” said Meg Smith, a spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association, whose members are independent bookstores. Though she lacks any data, bookstore sales may lag other sectors due to post-Christmas growth in the e-book market as people download selections for e-readers, Smith said. Discount at bankrupt Borders may also be a factor, she said.
Still, the number of independent booksellers overall has increased and stabilized in the last 18 months, reversing years of decline, Smith said. An ABA-supported locals first campaign has gained traction with consumers, who recognize that keeping communities healthy requires shopping locally, she said.
That realization can’t come too soon, according to Latitude 33’s manager Kim Vater. Some customers who tap the bookshop’s knowledgeable employees to discover books they like still patronize online sellers because of lower prices. “People think we’ll always be here,” agreed Latitude’s adult books buyer Judith Werkstell, “but we need them as much as they need us.”
So do authors, since many books become best sellers, not by virtue of high visibility reviews, but because local shops recommend them and hold author events.
“You definitely need the support of the people in your town,” said Jane Hanauer, owner of Laguna Beach Books, saddened to learn of Ahern’s decision. Even so, both store owners say book sales to tourists make up a significant share of their receipts.
In the meantime, last December ABA made a deal that allows their members to sell Google’s e-books on their websites.
Laguna Beach Books seized the opportunity and now sells e-books on their website, along with regular books, which can be delivered or picked up at the store. Even so, Hanauer said sales fall short of 2007 levels, but at least the store is keeping pace with trends such as selling e-books.
Latitude 33 also has similar plans.
“Hopefully, a book lover or group of book lovers will take over and keep Latitude 33 running,” said Ahern, who insists he has “the best staff ever” and who sees a future for service-intensive independent bookstores. He only hopes the new owner will maintain the “funky” atmosphere of his shop.
Inquiries should be sent to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or left at the store at 311 Ocean Avenue.