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Salt Lake City Weekly Waking Owl Goes the Way of the Dodo

By Ben Fulton

JANUARY 19, 1999:  As another chapter in the independent bookstores' war for survival against national chains comes to a close, many in the local bookselling community are wondering where the plot will turn next. Put another way, "If a local bookseller opened a store, would anyone come?"

After 22 years in business, Waking Owl Books will close its doors. Sam Weller Books, the Salt Lake Valley's oldest independent bookstore, has announced the closing of its Sandy store in March. On-line book sales continue to skyrocket, and Amazon.com saw a stratospheric 1,455 percent increase on its stock price. The Barnes & Noble chain fortified its Sugar House location with the opening of a new superstore.

The outlook is decidedly mixed, according to local independent booksellers. For years they've argued that if bookstore chains are allowed to lock hands with major publishers to create best-sellers in a merciless quest for profits, it will be the death of literature as we know it. Chains and publishing companies care only about market share, independents say. Need evidence? Barnes & Noble's recent bid to purchase book wholesaler giant Ingram's, which would force many independents to purchase goods directly from their competitor, is all you need.

Fiercely dedicated to the old ways, independents stress quality and knowledge of their product over volume sales. Heart-felt recommendations to regular customers and new discoveries from small presses are the hallmark of independents. And independents argue that our choice of literature shouldn't be strapped to brute market forces. But do the masses want a cappuccino and Stephen King novel instead?

Recent closing announcements from Sam Weller's and Waking Owl are only the latest wave in a nationwide trend of independent closings. Locally, it's argued that the recent emergence of two rare bookstores, Ken Sanders and Scallywag's, is an encouraging sign that true "book love" carries on. Others say that's beside the point, and everyone should heed Waking Owl's death knoll, which makes King's English and Sam Weller's Books the last of the local independents.

"It's very sad," says Tony Weller, owner of Sam Weller's. "Until the chains came to town there were rarely adversarial feelings between bookstores, but the greed of the chains is so excessive. What is the limit of their desire? When will they have enough bookstores? I don't like domination of any market. You'd have to have almost Christ-like tendencies not to abuse that kind of power."

News of Waking Owl and Sam Weller's Sandy store also alarmed Betsy Burton, co-owner of King's English. Ever the optimist, she's adamant that independents should keep doing what they've always done. "We read and recommend the books we sell. I maintain that's what saves our customers money, not power-aisle displays," she says. "Since these closings, I've heard more and more people say they'll no longer step foot inside a chain. People value their community more when they see it slipping away."

For Waking Owl owner Patrick de Freitas, the decision to close was one of simple cash flow. When business first started to flag, his store, located near the University of Utah, tried selling textbooks to students. Success was mixed. The proposition of a coffee bar was also pondered, but zoning regulations prevented it. He also suspects that computer-savvy U. students discovered on-line shopping.

"Others see the community aspect first, I saw a business problem," says de Freitas. "The forces working on the book business today are due more to evolution than unfair practices. However, that doesn't mean there haven't been unfair practices."

Sam Weller's Books, which has been part of several class-action lawsuits alleging unfair business practices, strongly attests to that. As a member of the American Bookeller's Association, the store sued six major publishing companies for giving excessive discounts, unequal credit terms, and unequal advertising opportunities to chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, while independents were left wanting. The suit was settled out-of-court for undisclosed sums several years ago.

Now the American Bookseller's Association is again going to federal court, this time alleging that Barnes & Noble and Borders used excessive clout to intimidate and bully publishers into making secret, preferential deals. Twenty-six independent bookstores nationwide have joined in the suit, filed in April and set for a hearing in February 2000.

"If we win, we expect to get triple damages for the closing of our Bountiful and Sandy stores," Weller says.

Mary Ellen Keating, a spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble in New York City, denies the suit's allegations. "We intend to vigorously fight them in a court of law and be fully vindicated," she says.

Sitting on the sidelines, but cheering for the independents, are Salt Lake City's rare book sellers. Ken Sanders, who opened an antiquarian book store with his daughter more than 18 months ago, is thankful he doesn't have to compete directly with the chains. But like the independents, he's felt the effects of electronic commerce. On-line sellers increase the available pool of rare books, which makes pricing more competitive. But Sanders says many friends of his have returned up to 50 percent of their on-line purchases because the quality wasn't up to snuff.

"I don't think the chains can touch me," Sanders says. "There's just no substitute for personal bookselling. Knowledge of a field can't be franchised. This isn't like selling shoes. It's about ideas, art and literature, not just commerce.

"The closing of Waking Owl should be an alarm call to people who care about literature and all its manifestations. Sooner or later, society will have to decide if it's our fate to be Wal-Martized."

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