It’s been said that a house without books is like a body without a soul. The same might be said of a town without bookstores — especially those of the small, independently owned variety.
Bloomington, thankfully, does not have that problem.
Retail chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble dealt a major blow to bookstores around the country in the past few decades. Now, the same retailers that sank so many small booksellers are facing their own reckoning with the rapid growth of Amazon.
But amidst all the change in the industry, two local institutions have held steady, anchoring the east side of the courthouse square in downtown Bloomington: The Book Corner and Caveat Emptor.
The Book Corner, snugly situated at the juncture of N. Walnut St. and W. Kirkwood Ave., opened in 1964. Margaret Taylor, whose father opened the shop, worked with the shop for decades before taking the helm in the late 1990s. These days, The Book Corner offers a curated selection of new releases and enduring classics, as well as unique greeting cards. With its neatly arranged shelves and display areas, and its walls painted a warm and welcoming shade of red, it offers an inviting atmosphere to browsers.
The second enduring local institution, just a few doors down, stocks and sells used and often out-of-print volumes. Previous owner Janis Starcs helped open it in 1971. The store moved to its spot on 112 N. Walnut St. in the early 90s, where countless students have sought it out for an array of scholarly work. That’s how current owners Eric and Catherine Brown first encountered it, years ago: as students enchanted by the wealth of aging volumes, the shelves so high they required rolling ladders to reach the top, and the fantastic perfume of old-books filling the store all the way up to its ornately tiled ceiling. When Starcs chose to retire in 2016 and started to close up, the Browns took over the business because they couldn’t bear to see the shop close, as so many other Bloomington bookstores had.
Morgenstern Booksellers once stood in Eastland Plaza but closed in the 1990s. Though it moved several times, Howard’s Bookstore enjoyed five successful decades in downtown Bloomington before it closed in 2013, when owner Joie Canada retired. Aquarius Books, Between the Lines, retail chains Waldenbooks, Borders and B Dalton Booksellers — all have made a run of it in Bloomington, and all have closed up shop.
What are the secrets to a long-lasting bookstore?
For one, you have to understand: There’s still a market for independent bookshops.
“People want to experience the independence of not having to buy from corporate,” said Margaret Taylor of The Book Corner. They want someone who can “prescribe” a good read when they don’t have a clear idea of what they want, and personalized customer service.
E-books seemed like they would be a threat for a while, but Taylor says sales have flattened out and that the ink-and-paper book still holds strong. Readers want to be able to hold a book, dog-earing the pages and writing in the margins like Catherine Brown, or keeping their copies pristine for display in their personal libraries, which her husband prefers —the pair are avid readers and the co-owners of Caveat Emptor.
For the booksellers, institutional knowledge certainly helps in more than just the business process. Taylor knows Bloomington’s reading habits, and an instinct developed over time of which publishers and authors are most likely to succeed in the store. The Browns know that many come to Caveat Emptor in search of academic resources, and consider that when they restock their shelves.
But Taylor believes adaptability is also key. She pays close attention to the changes in literary trends. It means ordering more board books for small children and more young adult literature, both of which have exploded in popularity in the 2000s. It means letting go of once tried-and-true staples, like its large magazine collection or newspaper offerings; and offering special services other stores might not, like gift-wrapping at any time of the year, filling special orders and hunting down out-of-print volumes.
It also means pruning the collection of books the way she would weed a garden. In recent weeks, she said, she let go of an Ernest Hemingway novel. While she would have once been horrified not to have the title in her inventory, she couldn’t justify giving the shelf space to a volume that hadn’t sold in two years. And anyway, if a customer wants a book that isn’t in the store, Taylor’s wholesaler can usually get her a title within 24 hours if the customer is willing to come back for it.
For Caveat Emptor, part of that adaptability means reconsidering its operations. The sign outside advertises “used and rare books,” but the Browns do very little trade in that second category. A book has to be something truly special for Eric to travel to inspect the book, bring it back, research its value, give it a price and find it a spot on Caveat’s many shelves. Though with nearly 50,000 books still in storage after they purchased the store and its entire stock, they are hardly in need of bringing in more volumes.
Technology brings with it its own mixed blessing: It’s great when it works the way it should, but disastrous when it fails. A malfunctioning card reader is a sale lost, and internet failure means a delay in ordering books that aren’t available in the store. Case in point: The Book Corner caught fire in Nov. 2016 after a fan fell into a greeting card display overnight. Taylor said it damaged the computers, where years and years of store records were held. Luckily, she had kept paper records of her sales. “It saved my business.”
A trick of the trade, she warned: Never be wholly reliant on technology.
Bloomington is a town of readers, and being within walking distance of the university means both stores benefit from the foot traffic of students and professors. Visitors to the downtown farmers’ market, those visiting Bloomington for conferences or conventions, and daytripping tourists who stroll downtown in nice weather also pop in regularly.
“I think it’s a two-way street. I wouldn’t be here without my customers. We have phenomenal people who want us here,” Taylor said.
Because the two stores have been in their locations for so long, they get plenty of people who once lived in Bloomington to attend school but have since moved away. When those people come back, they often revisit the bookshops — sometimes with their children in tow. Caveat Emptor, particularly, holds a fond place in the memory of many a scholar.
“We have so many people say, ‘I built my thesis on this store,'” Eric Brown said.
A room of one’s own
The longevity of the two bookstores is especially remarkable when considering the high turnover rate of downtown businesses, particularly around the square. Climbing rent prices make it difficult for independent businesses to fend for themselves. That’s one of The Book Corner’s chief advantages: Unlike Caveat Emptor, it owns its building.
Taylor’s father, James Spannuth, was looking to the future when he bought the space The Book Corner occupies. He was worried the price of rent for his first shop — The Book Nook, just five blocks away toward the Indiana University campus and near the former Von Lee Theatre — would climb too high for him to keep the business.
But then a bank on the square closed. After it sat empty for two years, Spannuth purchased the building and ran The Book Nook and The Book Corner simultaneously for two decades. When he retired, Taylor and her sister Sarah Holmes took over the business. Eventually they consolidated into the old bank building, which still has four original floor vaults.
When asked what they keep in those vaults, Taylor did not hesitate with her reply: “Shoplifters.” And then cracked a smile.
Catherine Brown often drops into other independent bookstores when she’s traveling. The successful ones share a trait with The Book Corner. “Every single one of them that’s making it owns their building,” she said.
The Browns do not own the space at 112 N. Walnut St. Like Janis Starcs before them, they rent, and the location isn’t cheap. And while the Browns have put in a lot of work to increase the store’s revenue, they haven’t drawn a paycheck in the two years they’ve owned the business. Everything they sell goes right back into keeping up the store and paying the employees. Their three-year lease will expire in August of 2019, and they don’t yet know what they’ll do with the business as that date gets closer.
When they took over the business, Starcs said it might be wise to change locations to somewhere with cheaper rent. But relocating downtown isn’t feasible, and putting the store in a strip mall far from IU just wouldn’t feel the same, Eric Brown said. They would love the opportunity to buy a more permanent location, but nothing has materialized yet. For the next year, everything is on the table as the couple takes a hard look at their operations. It may be that the store reaches the brink of closing again, right back where it was in November 2016, and that’s a risk the Browns knew going in.
“We knew it was going to be uphill,” Catherine Brown said. Ultimately, they wanted to buy the bookstore some more time, and they have.
After all, you don’t go into book sales for the money. The Browns and Taylor see their independent bookstores as an expression of love to their community.
“I’m 73, and I’m here for my customers,” Taylor said. She enjoys greeting customers by name, curating a selection local readers will devour, and providing a unique buyer’s experience. “I joke that this is my community service to people, keeping the bookstore open.”
Catherine and Eric Brown also referred to running Caveat Emptor as a community service. A city, particularly a college town, needs a used bookstore, they said. People deserve easy access to the tomes of history, anthropology, philosophy and folklore that pack the towering shelves in their store. The owners like to joke that, at the risk of romanticizing their situation, they feel a little like the curators of the Library of Alexandria.
“We need places like this,” Eric Brown said. “Someone needs to keep human history alive and vital.”