For Readers' Forum, an independent bookstore in Wayne, 1992 had as many ups and downs as a good mystery novel.
That's when Borders and Barnes & Noble opened three outlets on the Main Line, slicing the small bookstore's business in half. Before that, the store had been enjoying its best years ever.
"It didn't fall off gradually. It was overnight," said Ed Luoma, co-owner of the store that is as much of an old-time fixture in Wayne as the barbershop with the spinning red-and-white pole a few doors up.
(An author himself, Luoma recalls that time as if it were the first paragraph of a novel. "It was a cold, damp summer; the sun didn't come out. There was not a lot of hot weather, but because it was cloudy it was depressing," he said.)
With the Barnes & Noble in Bryn Mawr now gone and Borders in Rosemont and Wynnewood in their last days after the chain filed for bankruptcy in February, Luoma worries his next chapter may come directly from an Agatha Christie novel, in particular And Then There Were None.
On the Main Line, arguably the wealthiest and most educated enclave in the region, you can find croissants, day spas, luxury cars, designer clothing, nail salons, and sushi almost anywhere along Lancaster Avenue.
Books, not so much.
Readers' Forum is the last place to buy new books, other than a children's bookstore in Haverford.
"For heaven's sake, if Wayne, an area where people, generally speaking, are very educated and able to buy a book now and then, can't support a bookstore, it's sad," said Ann Miller, a former English teacher who stops in Readers' Forum nearly every week.
Two years ago, with the recession in full swing, the store appealed to customers who donated $25,000 to keep it afloat. But now, Luoma, whose co-owner is Al Lewis, says he is draining his personal savings to buy books for the store.
"At least we're not a half a billion in debt," he said, referring to the financial problems that sunk Borders.
After a decade when membership in the American Booksellers Association plummeted from 4,300 to 1,825, the number of stores has begun inching up, said Meg Smith, the organization's membership and marketing officer.
But independent booksellers in the Philadelphia area are harder to find than an out-of-print title.
When Readers' Forum moved from Philadelphia to Ardmore in 1974, it joined at least half a dozen bookstores in just that one town, Luoma recalled. And when it relocated to Wayne in 1987, there were three other booksellers within a few blocks.
Those stores have vanished, and the reason is no mystery.
Independent and chain booksellers have to contend with competition on many fronts. Best sellers are carried at a discount everywhere, from Walmart to Rite Aid, as well as on Amazon and other websites. E-readers such as the Kindle and Nook allow customers to download books instantly for less than they would spend in a store.
Changes in the way publishers sell their books - demanding payment up front rather than after 30 days - have hurt independents as well.
One bookseller that does not want to see Borders go is the Title Page, jam-packed with 70,000 used books, just a few hundred feet from the Rosemont Borders.
"Bookstores are one of those businesses where the more you have the better off you are," owner Beverly Potter said.
In fact, she moved to Rosemont 10 years ago to be near Borders, from which she gets 30 percent to 40 percent of her customers who cannot find what they want at the chain.
"A customer came in last week and said, "Well, you put them out of business,' " she said. "I'm not happy they're going out of business."
Back at Readers' Forum, where a warren of tables entices customers to wander, Luoma says his inventory dwindled when publishers cut off his credit. But now he is using credit cards to pay for new stock, and sales have increased.
"I have people walk in all the time and say it's heaven walking in here," he said. "They love the experience of walking into a bookstore."
And they love seeing more than the latest Patterson and Grafton on the shelves. His biggest sellers are lesser known titles such as The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.
As Borders winds down with a splashy going-out-of-business sale, Luoma said the only change he was making was rearranging the furniture.
"I'm tinkering with the feng shui to get it just right so people kind of get trapped in here," he said.