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Kaitlin Shantiai, Spring 2016, Spring 2016 Section 1

San Diego independent bookstores thriving despite digital competition


Adams Avenue Bookstore in Normal Heights, pictured April 18, is devoted to emphasizing the importance of physical books. (Photo by Kaitlin Shantiai)

In the digital age, scrolling on a screen has replaced turning a page in many ways. But move over Kindle, independent bookstores are here to stay.

Verbatim Books opened its doors to the North Park community in January and, despite popular belief about used bookstores, employee Michael Hams says business is thriving.

“Since we opened, a lot of people in the neighborhood have been bringing in their books so it’s almost kind of like the neighborhood’s bookstore more than it is ours,” he said. “Everyone here is building it as much as we are.”

A community aspect — something digital booksellers and chain bookstores don’t have.


Source: Fortune Magazine

Borders, one of the first chain bookstores, shut its doors in 2011 due to heavily declining business. Its competitor, Barnes & Noble, is not far behind, currently closing down stores by the dozens.

The rise of Amazon, e-books and tablets such as the Kindle largely contributes to the fall of bookstores across the country. Digital books are convenient in this fast-paced world, but people like Hams believe there’s nothing like a real book.

“It’s that physical aspect of it. The smell, the feel of the pages — all the senses really,” he said. “I love when a customer walks into the store and says, ‘Ahhh, it smells like books.’”

Verbatim Books, San Diego’s newest used bookstore

Located on the corner of 30th and Granada, Verbatim Books is the newest addition to the North Park scene. Owner Justine Epstein worked at used bookstores for more than a decade before deciding to partner with co-owner Greg Theilmann and open their own store, simply because of their love for books.

A few weeks after opening their doors, Epstein and Theilmann invited the neighborhood to join them in the official grand opening of the store. The event, titled “Audio Books,” took place on April 6 and featured three local acoustic performers.

Attendees also got to enjoy craft beer from Mike Hess Brewing Company, in which all profits from the beer donations were given to City Heights Music School.

Aside from doubling as a bookstore and concert venue, Verbatim Books is different from other independent bookstores in that it is an exclusively used bookstore that doesn’t accept books in poor condition.

“It’s almost thinking of it like the difference between Buffalo Exchange and Urban Outfitters,” Epstein said. “Similar product but different price point.”

The bookstore holds thousands of books, genres ranging all the way from poetry to science fiction.

“The weird, unusual ones are my favorite,” Epstein said. “I think the most fun for us and our customers is when they come in here and find something they just had no idea existed.”

Take Janet Larson, a frequent customer of the bookstore, who spends hours searching the shelves for hidden gems.

“There’s just something about a bookstore like this that’s so nostalgic,” she said. “You can’t get this feeling shopping online.”

A drawback Amazon has picked up on.

Amazon to open brick-and-mortar store in San Diego

Once an online bookstore, Amazon is returning to its roots — but this time with four walls.

Last November, Amazon opened its first physical retail store, Amazon Books, in Seattle. Its next stop? Right here in San Diego.

Across from the Apple store in UTC mall, a large signage states “Coming this summer” followed by the Amazon logo. It also provides a link for potential employees to apply.


Amazon Books will open at UTC mall this summer, according to this signage pictured April 5. (Photo by Kaitlin Shantiai)

The store will presumably resemble the Seattle location, which doubles as a bookstore and showroom for Amazon products such as Kindle, Fire TV and Echo.

While many local booksellers may feel threatened by their new neighbor, the Verbatim Books family is staying hopeful.

“Competition is competition — it’s healthy and hopefully people will see the difference, even though it might take a while,” Hams said. “I feel like people will eventually come back to these places anyway because of that feel, that community aspect.”

Scott Emerson, a longtime employee of Adams Avenue Bookstore, also believes the power of community will overcome the power of novelty.

Adams Avenue Bookstore, one of San Diego’s oldest used bookstores

Joining the Normal Heights neighborhood in 1965, Adams Avenue Bookstore currently stands as one of the city’s oldest bookstores — but its doors are far from closing.

“We’ve been in the community so long that we have hundreds of regular customers,” Emerson said. “We buy books every day so customers know we’re going to have new inventory regularly.”

The bookstore specializes in academic subjects and currently has 50,000 books in stock, primarily used. Only about 1 percent of the books are new.

Aside from the books, there are other reasons customers keep coming back: two cats named Bartleby and Felixia who live inside the bookstore.


Bartleby hangs out at his favorite spot on top of the stairs at Adams Avenue Bookstore on April 18. (Photo by Kaitlin Shantiai)

“Customers come in just for the cats sometimes. They see the cats, pet the cats and they leave,” Emerson said. “We hope they buy a book but it’s OK if they don’t.”

The bookstore also holds talks occasionally, bringing the community together to discuss education-related topics. The employees and management strongly believe in educating others the old-fashioned way — without the help of a digital platform.

“More and more I’m hearing people tell me that they have grown tired of the Kindle and the Nook,” Emerson said. “They want to hold a book in their hands and they like the feel of it, as I do.”



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