The enduring power of print

Despite a rise in popularity of e-books and tablets, independent bookstore owners are busier than ever

Dave Kyle at Hemingway’s New and Used Books holds tiny antique volumes.

Dave Kyle at Hemingway’s New and Used Books holds tiny antique volumes.

Dave Kyle is surrounded by nearly 200,000 books, and at the moment he’s holding the tiniest one in the palm of his hand.

It’s a miniature leather-bound copy of Gulliver’s Travels printed in 1826. Kyle picked it up at an estate sale in Vancouver.

“These are miniatures. It was a craze in the late 19th century,” explains Kyle, owner of the 8,000-square-foot store Hemingway’s New & Used Books on Essendene Avenue.

With a background in book restoration, he has a reverent appreciation for books made between 1500 and 1800.

“That’s the handmade period. Once you get to about 1830 you start to see the beginning of mechanization in the process and by mid-century so much of it was taken over by machines.”

Of course, these days there’s a new method of book publishing: e-books.

A Pew Research Center study released in January 2014 titled “E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps,” reported that half of American adults now own either a tablet or an e-reader.

You’d think that would make booksellers like Kyle worried – but he’s not.

That same Pew Research study notes “though e-books are rising in popularity, print remains the foundation of Americans’ reading habits.”

And while there has been a rash of independent and chain bookstore closures in Metro Vancouver, Kyle doesn’t blame that on the dawning age of e-books and portable reading devices like Kindle and iPads. Steep rent is a more likely culprit.

In fact, Kyle credits e-books with inspiring more readers.

“It expands reading, there’s no question,” he said. “That’s been our experience. It introduces more people to good books. And eventually they’re going to come in and start collecting the real thing. We see that time and time again.”

Kyle got his start in the book world by restoring antiquarian books, which led to him starting his own collection and hanging around book stores. In the mid-1990s, he began selling books online, which eventually led to his purchase of the store in Abbotsford in 2000.

And while Kyle doesn’t see e-books as a threat, he believes embracing technology is key to a successful future in the book business.

Perhaps the most important piece of technology is the store’s custom-tweaked inventory software that allows them to track inventory, books sales and flag titles for customers.

For instance, Kyle recently attended a private science fiction book sale that boasted 3,000-plus titles.

When he arrived, he pulled out his smartphone and was able to pull up a database report that allows him to stay on top of his book inventory and his customers’ want-list in real-time.

“We don’t make mistakes in buying, which is crucial. We peeled off the ones that we wanted using our database so there were no errors. We know exactly where we are going to sell them – either online or in the store, we have customers waiting.”

And while there might be a widely held belief that today’s youth only read in 140 characters, that’s not the case, according to Kyle, who notes that his youth and teen sections are actually growing.

“Clearly, there is evidence they do [enjoying reading books],” he says.

“Hello David,” says a passing regular customer as he goes downstairs, where there’s mainly non-fiction categories like art, military history and Canadian history.

It’s also where they keep a growing section of vinyl records, which are undergoing a revival of popularity.

And it’s not just Deadheads and milleniums looking to recapture a nostalgic period in their lives.

“We have a whole new generation of collectors,” says Kyle. “We started seeing it in books a few years back and now we’re seeing it in vinyl. It’s the 15- to 30-year-old age group who are now becoming collectors. It’s true for books and it’s true for vinyl.”

Kyle figures this particular demographic has grown up with iPads and digital downloads and has reached a stage where they actually want to touch and hold the actual record or book.

These kids grew up with “instant access” but didn’t own it.

“And now they want to own it. They want to own stuff.”

So, despite a proliferation of digital devices and downloads and level of 24/7 connectivity that’s become so prevalent in this digital age, he’s not worried about the future of bookstores.

“We’ve never been more optimistic. We just really embraced the technology side of it and we just think its going to get more and more interesting.”

The beauty and simplicity of the book

A 2013 study by U.K.-based Voxburner, a firm that specializes in studying the habits of young consumers, found that 62 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds prefer buying books over e-books.

Among the factors for this, according to Voxburner, were “pricing of e-books being too high” and “there is less affection towards electronic versions of books.”

Eric Spalding, a Social, Cultural and Media Studies associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, can relate to why there’s still a preference for the old-fashioned book.

“I much prefer real books myself. In my case, it’s a matter of old habits dying hard. That would be a factor for young people as well, I imagine, as e-books are so recent that most teens and young adults would have encountered them as something new after becoming used to books as children,” says Spalding.

He notes that the simplicity of a book has a lot going for it.

“I like knowing where I am in a book, I like flipping back to double-check something or flipping forward to see how many pages are left in a chapter. I like the possibility of comparing two parts of a book with each other. I feel you can do these things more easily with a book than with an e-book.”

“Also, I don’t like the idea of spending more time in front of a screen, with light shining directly into my eyes, even if I can dim the light on an e-reader to my satisfaction. And books can have a great feel and smell, they won’t break if you drop or mistreat them and you can share them with others more easily. It’s a more abstract feeling, but they also connect you to a centuries-old practice – in reading an actual book, you’re doing what people were doing back in medieval times or the Renaissance or the 19th century. Reading books that were published a long time ago reinforces this feeling of connectedness with the past.”

Amber Short is a second-generation bookstore owner. Her father David purchased Erna’s Book Nook in Chilliwack 25 years ago and later changed the name to Book Man because that’s what everyone started calling him.

They now have stores in Chilliwack – the “mothership” with over 5,000 square feet and the majority of the staff and admin – and a smaller 1,800-square-foot operation in Abbotsford.

Short managed the store for more than 16 years before becoming the official owner two and half years ago. When asked about selling physical books in a digital age, she’s not the least bit worried.

She saw a slight dip in sales a few years back, which she attributed to the introduction of e-books, but it didn’t last.

“In some ways I kind of feel it was the romance of the gadget and that book lovers are merging their love of books through a combined effort of books and e-books or just returning to the printed word, period.

“I think it’s just such a different tactile and emotional experience to connect with physically printed words,” Short continues.

“It’s a very different experience to curl up in your armchair with something tangible and physical and relax that way.”

Short figures it’s not just the experience of connecting with the printed word that makes the printed word experience so transformative.

“I think one of the biggest differences I notice between print and e-books is the actual experience of being in a bookstore. It’s one thing to go to or something like that and browse titles and have recommendations come up for you – it’s a totally different experience to go into a bookstore, meet the owner, see other people there, pet the cats. It’s an outing instead of being insulated in your house. I think that’s part of the allure of the printed word – just going for a browse, having those books surprise you and being surrounded by those aisles of adventures waiting for you.”

And with 80 sections and subsections in her store, the adventures are many.

Times have certainly changed since her father first got into the book business, but like her dad, she strongly believes in the power of the printed word.

“I’ll get people who are, say, business travellers and when they head out on a trip they load up their Kindle and they don’t have to worry about hauling a lot of books with them, people going on pleasure trips, stuff like that. But day-to-day reading, it seems like the vast majority of people are turning back to the printed word.”