Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sad End for the Happy Bookseller

The Happy Bookseller, an independent bookstore that has done business in Columbia, South Carolina, for the past 34 years is soon to close its doors for good. According to the Free Times, the store opened in 1974 and had little real competition until 1993 when Books-a-Million opened up a store, followed by the opening of two Barnes and Noble stores just a couple of years later. Despite being a well-established and beloved Columbia institution by the time the big chains arrived, the Happy Bookseller learned the lesson that so many independent bookstores have learned in recent years: surviving the invasion of the big boys is unlikely in the long run. So another great independent bookstore bites the dust.

What makes this one particularly interesting to me is the relationship between the bookstore and one of my very favorite authors, Pat Conroy.
The author most closely associated with the store, however, may be Pat Conroy. The store has certainly been the beneficiary of Conroy’s success. But as Starr tells it, the independent bookstore also played a significant role in the South Carolina novelist’s own meteoric ascent.

“Pat came in to sign [The Great Santini], and although it’s hard to imagine now, no one came — except Pat Conroy and his book. That was it. Then the last time I remember Pat coming through, which was, I think, for Prince of Tides, there were over a thousand people backed up in a line that went as far back as you could see…One of the reasons Pat’s popularity grew is because of people like Rhett Jackson and the Happy Bookseller, who created a place for writers that didn’t exist in Columbia before.”

Conroy, in fact, would eventually present the Jacksons with the American Booksellers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Bookselling.
So despite its long history as a unique Columbia bookstore, the Happy Bookseller will soon cease to exist. And it will be greatly missed by its longtime customers and those authors who have made regular appearances there over the years. But because the business of selling books has changed so drastically over the last decade, and continues to change even today, the Happy Bookseller can no longer afford to turn on the lights.
With so much new interest in literature, business would seem to be brisk. Unfortunately, the increasing popularity of online booksellers like Amazon, combined with the hit from the chains stores and slim profit margins, has gradually sapped the store’s revenue. Graves describes the effect of Internet sales as the “drip, drip, drip” that eventually made staying open a virtual impossibility.
How sad is that?

If you have a local independent bookstore in your town, please support it - or lose it. There are two cool ones in Houston, on the same street, in fact, that I buy from as often as my budget allows: Brazos Book Store and Murder by the Book. I love those stores and what they represent but a downturn in my personal economy has made it more and more difficult for me to get to them as often as I have in the past. I sure hope I don't wake up one morning and find their front doors locked.
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