Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Closing of The Open Book

It is with a heavy heart that I report on the loss of The Open Book, the first place I ever worked here in South Carolina. It's the oldest independent bookstore in the area, and ever since the arrival of Barnes and Noble, its days have been numbered.

I am always amazed when the heavily-Republican upstate prefers big business retailers over small businesses, all while bleating the patriotic, pro-capitalist mantra small business is the future of America. Somehow, that never actually translates into trying to SAVE those small businesses by, you know, patronizing them to keep them from going out of business.

At least once a day I hear the phrase, "I can get that cheaper at Walmart." (I fight back the urge to reply, well yeah, if you wanna burn in hell for all eternity!) But it is telling that I can first remember hearing "I can get that cheaper at Walmart," while working at the Open Book. The volume in question was of course some mega-billion-seller by Stephen King or Danielle Steele. We thought, well, they still have to come to us for the offbeat and hard-to-obtain stuff.

That was in 1989, and well before the internet. As you know, that is no longer true.

And unfortunately, you can still get it cheaper at the Walmart.

Greenville's Open Book closing its doors
Customers say a community will vanish with independent retailer
By Jeanne Brooks • Staff writer, Greenville News
January 25, 2010

A card with the news went out to about 1,000 of the store’s best customers over the past year. After four decades in business in Greenville, The Open Book is closing.

Park McKnight, a customer in the store Saturday, said once the doors shut for good, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The independent bookstore first opened in August 1971, in what was then the Bell Tower Shopping Center, now County Square, long before the era of large national chain bookstores, big box retailers selling books at deeply discounted prices, or online book sales.

Tom Gower at age 48 left a successful corporate job to become a bookstore owner. He went on to make the Gower name “synonymous with local bookselling,” as a Greenville Piedmont story put it in 1987.

The Open Book has remained a locally owned family business to this day. At one point, there were three stores in Greenville and a branch in Clemson. Earlier, for a couple or so years, there was also a branch in Anderson.

Gower’s wife, Elizabeth, and three of their four children — Margaret, Tommy and Grier — worked in the stores alongside their parents. One son, Roger, became a doctor instead.

In 1978, the family opened an Open Book in what was then McAlister Mall, now University Center. Managing it fell to Margaret. She hired Duff Bruce to help, and the two married in 1984.

Through the decades, the bookstore attracted and kept devoted customers like Anne Howson and her husband, Art.

“We have relied on Duff for at least 25 years to make recommendations” about what to read, Howson said Saturday.
Every Christmas, Howson’s husband would call for suggestions for the five or six books he always gives his wife. When he came to the store later, Bruce would have a list ready.

Howson said she was sad to learn the bookstore is closing, “but not at all surprised. I know what a struggle this has been (to keep it going). It’s been a labor of love for them.”

For her, “It’s more than just a business closing its doors.” A sense of community will be lost. The Open Book hasn’t been the kind of place to hurry in and out of. “You walk around,” she said, browse the shelves, and talk books and ideas with the owners and staff.

The Open Book’s various stores were consolidated in 1993 into a single bookstore with a café, which the Bruces now own, in a 12,000-square-foot building at 110 S. Pleasantburg Drive.

Books-A-Million, on Laurens Road, “was already here,” Bruce recalled. “And we knew Barnes & Noble was looking.”

Barnes & Noble opened a 29,000-square-foot store on Haywood Road the following year.
But The Open Book held its own for a while. For one thing, “Greenville was growing at the time,” Margaret Bruce said. She has since come to think, “We probably weren’t getting the new people on the Eastside.”

The year the Open Book consolidated, in 1993, there were about 4,700 independent bookstores in the United States, according to the American Booksellers Association, The New York Times reported. By 2007, there were about 2,500.

The plight of the independents was portrayed in the 1998 film, “You’ve Got Mail.”

The independent bookstore The Happy Bookseller in Columbia, founded in 1974, closed in 2008.

But the Bruces said a combination of factors beyond large chain bookstores, some of which are also feeling pressure, have made it tough for independents. For example, some big-box retailers and online booksellers discount books to below cost, Bruce said.

The Bruces started thinking about what to do two years ago. “We both look at the sales every day,” he said.
They considered different options like going smaller. “But we were just tired,” Margaret Bruce said. “We’ve been doing this a long time.” They decided last summer to stay open through Christmas, then close.

They expect to lock the doors for the final time in about a month. There will be much they miss. They will miss the customers, many of whom have become good friends, they said.

And for Bruce, “There’s really nothing quite like handing somebody a book that you think they might like.”

His wife, who has worked in one or another of The Open Book stores most of her life, starting when she was 15, has always enjoyed looking at what sold the day before and reordering.

Once retired, they both intend to read more. Margaret Bruce also wants to do volunteer work.

Also “Margaret has never been to Europe,” Bruce said. “I haven’t been in 30 years.” So maybe they’ll go.

One thing for sure, “We won’t miss worrying about selling enough books,” she said.
At left: From the children's book department, The Cow Jumps over the Moon.

When the store closes, the book clubs, writers groups and nonprofit boards that meet in The Open Book’s back room will have to find another place.

Some schools will have to seek another advertiser for their yearbooks and another donor. A small pool of local businesses, such as office suppliers, will be in need another client.

And local starting-out authors, as Nicholas Sparks was at one time, will have to look for another spot willing to host a signing for someone not yet widely known.

Howson, a librarian as well as a longtime customer, said, “It goes beyond economics. It makes me sad to think that to save a few dollars we give up so much more.”

The Bruces worked on the language of the card they sent out. Margaret Bruce wanted to make sure it didn’t sound “too weepy.” At the end they put, “We will miss you all and hope you continue to shop local. It matters!”
My deepest and most heartfelt novenas go out to everyone at the Open Book, past and present... it always hurts when a dream dies.

*all photos from my Flickr account.


JoJo said...

That's a damn shame Daisy. I'm so sorry that it's closing. I hate it that the big chains are forcing the independent stores to close. :(

D. said...

"I am always amazed when the heavily-Republican upstate prefers big business retailers over small businesses, all while bleating the patriotic, pro-capitalist mantra small business is the future of America."

[cynical] You will never be disappointed if you expect Republicans to be hypocrites.[/cynical]

I am so sorry you're losing a bookstore. Barnes & Noble is taking on the aspects of Evil Empire, and I'm becoming ashamed to admit that I patronized the original singular store in Manhattan for textbooks.

Marshall-Stacks said...

This sad trend is not confined to South Carolina, but is universal.
The conservative politicians who love the big chain stores, are first to criticise the former staff of little stores going to the unemployment lines.

'You've Got HateMail' more like it, and the CEOs are not as cute as Tom*Hanks.

white rabbit said...

I fear it's the same for independent bookstores the world over. If you've still got one nearby, cherish and support it....

trancedental wisdomkeeperandother foolishness said...

well you would never catch me at a walmart..REFUSE
I hate even big grocery store...go to chinese or indian markets whan I can...
the same with the loacl hardware store or the small music stores...gone gone gone ...sad

sheila said...

Yep, that is so sad. I think most our our Borders are closing around here, which might actually be good for our mom and pop stores.

It's hard to find an independent book store near me though

Marion said...

There are no big box book stores where I live and we still rely on the two small stores that have been here forever. In the Winter, it is like visiting a well-loved friend when I go in. The little store is filled with people, most who've known each other forever. There are always one or two authors walking around in there.

I'm so sorry you are losing yours...Walmart can not hope to have the atmosphere these small stores have.

GCU Prosthetic Conscience said...

As the article points out, we lost the last independent (new) bookstore in Columbia in 2008, The Happy Bookseller. Probably more the fault of Amazon than of Wal-Mart. I don't think Wal-Mart shoppers buy a lot of books.

kikipotamus said...

That's really sad to hear. Little Rock's independent lost some business temporarily when B&N and Books-a-Million came to town, but eventually the clientele drifted back to us again. Some even would find a book they liked at B&N, then come ask us to order it. Loyalty like that rocks.

Gregg Jocoy said...

It is sad to see The Open Book closing. Wish I had the cash to buy it, but heck, if experienced people can't make a go of it, I doubt I can.

Now we have got to find another independent book seller to patronize, right?

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