'Taos is very much a book town'

Local booksellers stay afloat by embedding themselves in the social fabric

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 12/5/19

"The problem with digital books is that you can always find what you are looking for," says a quote posted in Op. Cit. Books near Taos Plaza. "You need to go to a bookstore to find what you weren't looking for."

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'Taos is very much a book town'

Local booksellers stay afloat by embedding themselves in the social fabric

Posted

"The problem with digital books is that you can always find what you are looking for," says a quote posted in Op. Cit. Books near Taos Plaza. "You need to go to a bookstore to find what you weren't looking for."

The question that local independent booksellers have heard for years is, 'How badly have Amazon and e-books beaten you up?' "That argument - that Amazon is going to kill us - was current maybe 10 years ago," said Op. Cit. owner Noemi de Bodisco, "but things have gone in a different direction since then."

Three Taos bookstores are signs of that direction.

The Brodsky Bookshop

226A Paseo del Pueblo Norte

According to Rick Smith, who co-owns the Brodsky Bookshop with his wife, Morris Witten, local bookstores have passed through that dark ravine, the dead bodies have been cleared away and many of the survivors are actually doing better than they were a decade ago.

According to the New York Times in June, the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent bookstores, had grown to 1,887 members with 2,524 locations as of May 2019. This eclipses the previous high in 2009, when ABA had about 1,650 stores in their membership.

When Smith and Witten acquired the shop in 1992 following the death of founder Lee Brodsky, about 80 percent of books in America still sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores. A sizeable chunk of that business, however, was going to the corporate chains - Borders and Barnes & Noble. Borders, however, declared bankruptcy and liquidated its remaining assets in 2011. Barnes & Noble recently agreed to be purchased by a management firm at a fraction of its share value.

The Amazon business model, as well as Costco's in-store sales, have shaved away the profit margins on new bestsellers that used to keep small independent bookstores afloat. "Today, people often treat local stores like showrooms," said Smith. "They come in, look through a book to see if they like it, then go home and order it online to get a better price."

One strategy that's helped keep Brodsky alive, Smith says, has been "building on the local." He mentioned Taos Pueblo and its rich history, the Taos art community, local writers and SOMOS, an organization of writers and readers that serves as the literary hub of the community.

"We are an outlet for local writers," said Smith. "Self-publishing has become quite an active industry, but those authors become, in effect, their own marketers. Getting their titles in front of the public is a challenge, and local bookstores - SOMOS as well - are an important cog in that process."

Because of Brodsky's limited space, they don't host many events there. But they've partnered with SOMOS, which hosts frequent readings, by ordering the author's books and selling them at the event. "We then give a percentage of the profits to SOMOS to help support their mission," Smith said.

One of Smith's favorite anecdotes epitomizes the local bookstore experience: "A guy came into the shop and spent a long time looking at every title on every shelf," he said. "When I asked if I could help him find a book, he smiled and said, 'I'm waiting for the book to find me.'"

As for the online mail-order industry, Smith said, "Retail has a long history of being buffeted by strong winds, the latest being technology." The key, he says, is to adapt. He stopped carrying new-release bestsellers because trying to compete with the paper-thin margins of Amazon and Costco was not sustainable.

Op. Cit. Books

124 Bent Street

Noemi de Bodisco had established Op. Cit. Books in Santa Fe and Tome on the Range in Las Vegas before opening Op. Cit. in Taos four years ago in the John Dunn Shops. In October of this year she expanded, adding half the floor space of the adjacent Leather Works shop.

De Bodisco believes wholeheartedly in keeping business local and, as a facet of that, in going to any lengths to special-order books for customers, including rare or out-of-print editions. Like Brodsky, she supports local writers, allowing them to do readings and sell their books for free in her shops.

De Bodisco embraces the aesthetic of touching and reading an ink-and-paper book as an intrinsically humanizing experience. "A friend of mine was holding an estate sale after her father passed away," de Bodisco said. "While going through his collection of books, she opened one of them randomly, and the aroma of his pipe tobacco wafted up. It brought tears to her eyes."

In spite of pressure from Amazon and Costco, de Bodisco said, "We're hanging in there, maybe because we make the extra effort to get hard-to-find things into the hands of our customers. Also, Taos is very much a book town, and the aesthetic of the book experience is strong here."

As another means of building community, she and her staff watch the listings in Publisher's Weekly with specific customers in mind. "We'll say, 'I bet so-and-so would really like that,' and we'll recommend it to them."

She and her staff 'curate' the titles they sell, both new and used. "We want to be surrounded by beautiful things," said de Bodisco, "and we want to be the most interesting store in town."

"For that reason, I try not to do tchotchkes," she added, "even though the margins on those things are huge. I went to the Strand in New York City [the largest bookstore in the United States] when I was there for a book expo. They now have walls of socks, walls of backpacks and oodles of cutesy little things at the checkout."

While local bookstores often face a major challenge in finding a space with affordable rent, de Bodisco said, "We're very fortunate in Taos. Polly [Raye, owner of the John Dunn Shops] has been very supportive. She wanted a bookstore here, and she fought for it."

When the previous bookstore occupying that space, Moby Dickens, closed its doors in 2015, de Bodisco offered to put in a temporary 'pop-up' to keep a bookselling presence there. "Polly said 'No, I don't want a pop-up. I want you to come and open a bookstore."

Hooked on Books II

1329 Paseo del Pueblo Sur

Nancy Robinson started out in Taos 25 years ago as co-owner of a bookstore in Ranchos, then opened Hooked on Books I behind the Sears store. Three years ago, she moved to a former residential home set back a ways from Paseo del Pueblo Sur. You might drive right by without noticing Hooked on Books II, if it weren't for the imposing sandwich-board sign out front that reads "Great Used Books."

"This location has been really good for us," said manager Linda Morel, "and the rent is a lot more affordable than the places in town. We don't advertise, but a lot of our loyal customers spread the word." She also noted that a lot of tourists stop in as they approach town from the south - the kind that always brake for bookstores.

As a seller of exclusively used books, Robinson believes a vast selection is what wins and keeps customers. She offers store credit to customers who bring in their books. "Summers are great for us because of all the tourists," she said. "We don't do a big holiday business, probably because people look for new books as gifts."

Robinson's inventory is indeed vast. Bill Thompson, a longtime customer, said, "I come here because I find things that I can't find anywhere else." He walked out with a Michael Crichton novel, saying, "He may be dead, but he's still one of the best."

One of the striking features of the store is its organizational genius. There are shelves labeled 'British Mysteries' and 'American Mysteries' rather than one catch-all Mystery section. Instead of just a Spiritual shelf, you'll find Metaphysical, Religion and Consciousness.

"Taos is a very metaphysical kind of place, so we have a separate Metaphysics section that's gotten huge," said Morel. "We have a General History section but we also have subsections of Native American History and Southwest History."

Robinson and Morel said they actively promote cooperation with the other two stores, and that the others return the kindness. "Brodsky calls us often if they don't have what a customer is looking for," said Morel. "Op. Cit. as well." Smith and de Bodisco also swear by cooperation. "Sticking together keeps all of us solvent" seems to be the consensus.

Sustainable

Is there hope for a sustainable resurgence of paper-and-ink book publishing? According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books have started to fizzle. Sales of digital books fell 3.6 percent to $1.02 billion in 2018, a third straight annual decline. Hardcover sales, on the other hand, rose 6.9 percent to $3.06 billion, and paperback sales increased 1.1 percent to $2.67 billion.

Is reading a pastime that will die with the Boomers? Chipper Thompson, who works the Brodsky shop two days a week, begged to differ. "We have a surprisingly large younger audience," he said. "They're generally looking for what you'd call 'intellectual' titles, including a lot of metaphysical stuff. They also want blank books they can write in themselves."

"I don't believe for a minute that young people have lost interest in reading," said de Bodisco. "Our clientele does not support that theory at all."

Robinson and Morel agree. "It's wonderful to see more and more kids coming into the store and settling down in a corner with a book," Robinson said.

Other bookstores  in the area include:

SOMOS, 108 Civic Plaza Drive.  The home of the Society of the Muse of the Southwest, the bookstore has plenty of space for the numerous literary events hosted by the organization. 

 Two Graces, 105 Barela Lane.   Specializing in New Mexico and Southwestern art and authors.

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