The story of P.K. Sindwani and his suburban Philadelphia bookstore is a saga of the beleaguered bookselling industry: good intentions, crazy times, and anyone's guess as to how things will turn out.
For nearly two decades, Sindwani had done well at his shop near Ursinus College. But in 2010, with an anchor supermarket dying next door and the industry transforming at an exasperating pace, things got so tough that the onetime accountant and lifelong book lover was planning an exit strategy.
Most anyone trying to sell printed books at a bricks-and-mortar store was sweating hard: Onetime powerhouse Borders was steaming toward bankruptcy; casual book buyers were flooding Amazon.com with cash they used to spend at shops, and Amazon's Kindle e-reader, a forerunner of the now-burgeoning market for tablets and e-books, was so hot it was like Napalm to the dwindling independents, like Sindwani's Trappe Book Center.
"I was barely breaking even," said Sindwani, a man with eyeglasses, an MBA, and a manner of speaking that does not veer toward hyperbole.
Then came an unexpected twist, which is becoming more common these days as technology collides with tradition to turn things topsy-turvy in the book world: A landlord at a fancy new shopping center called to say he wanted Sindwani as a tenant, just months after declining his request for a lease. The reason: A Barnes & Noble deal had just gone sour. Sindwani had a rescue deal.
Today, the renamed and relocated Towne Book Center & Cafe at Providence Town Center in Collegeville is, like other survivors, still in the game and still confronting formidable foes, such as a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit earlier this month over the pricing of e-books.
That action, which rebuked publishers for allegedly colluding to set fixed retail prices for electronic books, has been greeted with anxiety by small merchants because it means Amazon can now sell e-books for less than it paid for them. Competing booksellers fear this will give Amazon a firmer grip on what they call a monopoly over book sales.
Yet the lawsuit is only the latest in a series of challenges that have made the last five years difficult for independents.
Discounting by online booksellers, and the emergence of digital tablets and e-books, have made trips to stores less frequent. Competition from huge chains was the bogeymen before that.
"It's an industry where you don't feel secure, your head is spinning constantly," Sindwani, 53, said last week, while seated in the cluttered back room of the store near Route 422 that he rented a year ago.
"Look at this ruling [the lawsuit] a couple of days ago," he added. "You constantly have to innovate, you constantly have to change your strategy. It's like shooting a moving target."
E-books were just one of the big issues on the minds of nearly three dozen mid-Atlantic booksellers who gathered at Sindwani's store a month ago to brainstorm survival strategies. Amazon already does not permit them to sell books for download to Kindles, while Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Android tabletmakers do. How, they wondered, could they secure a bigger share of e-book sales moving forward?
They also griped about a growing practice known as showrooming, in which people visit stores only to browse for what they later download to tablets or buy online.
The merchants and their trade group, the American Booksellers Association, are working on these problems, hopeful they will find a way to strike back. "Anybody that's left now," said Sindwani, "we're fighters."
The ABA, based in New York state, negotiated a contract with Google two years ago allowing independents to sell e-books on their websites for download to most digital devices except the Kindle. That contract expires at year's end, and Google declined to renegotiate. The ABA's chief executive spent last week at the London Book Fair searching for new e-book partners.
Two years ago, there were few options other than Google Books, said Oren Teicher, CEO of the trade group. Today, however, there are more.
"We're going to have an embarrassment of riches to choose from in figuring out who might be the best e-book partner for us," Teicher said.
On a brighter note, he said, the pace of independent booksellers going out of business has slowed, and apparently stabilized, and the survivors have become more savvy about how to make money in a new way.
The Borders bankruptcy in early 2011, itself a casualty of online and digital competition, has funneled some business back to small merchants. And as Barnes & Noble a few years ago created a wing for toys, the little guys are diversifying their merchandise mix, too.
"This is a tough business; we're selling a product that's available in lots of other places," Teicher said. "But there is an enormous amount of creativity and entrepreneurship, in which people like P.K. are figuring out how to adapt and change and do things differently, and managing to make it work."
Consider the oldest independent in Center City, Joseph Fox Bookshop. It has operated for 62 years near 17th and Sansom Streets, even as other landmark bookstores downtown closed over the last decade.
Owner Michael Fox supplements the store's income by striking deals with corporations for books to be distributed at their special events. He also is exclusive provider of books for author events at the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia and elsewhere.
"We're at the center of all the big book events in Philadelphia," said Fox, whose long, narrow store is impeccably stocked and merchandised like a cozy, private library.
Fox owns the building in which the family store has been located all these decades. That's a godsend in an exclusive part of town where rent would otherwise be through the roof. It means Fox feels less pressure to stock commercial best sellers to rack up high-volume sales.
In other words, even with a Barnes & Noble only a few blocks away on Rittenhouse Square, Fox caters to a discerning reader because it can.
"We have really great customer service," he said, echoing the mantra of the independents. Also: "People really like books — real books."
In 1990, when Sindwani, a 31-year-old real estate accountant, opened a 2,500-square-foot store in Trappe as part of the now-defunct Little Professor Book Center franchise, rent was $37,000 a year. But business was strong.
"I started making money from Day One," he said.
A year ago, however, he had to solicit the kindness of 50 customer-volunteers to help pack and move all the merchandise to his new location in Collegeville. Overwhelmed by their love, he thanked them with food and gift certificates.
The store he opened in its place is more a "department store of knowledge," he said, than a showroom of books.
There are educational toys, greeting cards, and impulse buys. Sindwani also has a coffee bar, for which he traveled to Seattle to learn all things barista, including how to make a latte. (He buys beans from a local roaster, and cookies from a local resident.)
Easily a quarter of his store displays children's and youth books beneath a splashy jungle mural. The reason, he said, is that tech-savvy thirty- and fortysomething parents believe their children do not focus as well on digital readers such as the iPad or Kindle Fire, where the Web and Facebook are fingertip distractions.
"Children's is keeping me in business," Sindwani said.
He wholesales to area school districts, hosts author readings, and has an employee whose sole job is devising programs such as a weekly children's writing workshop beginning in May, which will feature autographed copies of books by instructor and kids' book author Nancy Viau.
"Creative marketing is what I call it," said Kit Little, Sandwani's marketing guru, a woman with a knack for retailing.
He plays up that his employees are profoundly knowledgeable and enamored with books, and that his suppliers deliver special-ordered titles the very next day.
"His sales have quadrupled since he's relocated out of Trappe and been in here," said David Waterman, vice president of leasing for Brandolini Cos., which placed Sindwani in its prime spot facing a Wegmans supermarket.
For years, such spots went to big chains that paid high rents. Those days are over.
"Even if the big guy said, 'You know what, we want to come back,' we'll say, 'You can't. That ship has sailed,'?" Waterman said. "We're sticking with our local P.K."