Bluffton bookstore owners show spine battling online competition

gmartin@islandpacket.comDecember 23, 2011 

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Nancy Beaupre is no stranger to underdog stories.

As owner of the Storybook Shoppe in Bluffton, which recently celebrated its first anniversary selling children's books, she could point customers toward a variety of selections -- from Corduroy the Bear to the Bobbsey Twins -- that illustrate how guile and perseverance can help a person overcome daunting circumstances.

But as the operator of a successful independent bookstore in 2011, Beaupre's own tale could be filed in the nonfiction section, at a time when many of her peers' aspirations of competing against Amazon and Barnes & Noble are fast becoming fantasy.

EBook sales in 2011 are up about 130 percent over 2010, according to the most recent statistics from the Association of American Publishers. E-books are typically cheaper than their print counterparts, and sales of electronic tablets and readers, such as Amazon's Kindle, are booming. Those are among the reasons bookstore chain Borders filed for bankruptcy in July.

But many independent bookstores like Beaupre's continue to thrive by filling a niche market, offering products and services that electronic book vendors can't match.

"I don't think (the sale of electronic books) has any effect on my business," Beaupre said. "Children need to be held and read to from a real book."

Beaupre's store caters to kids, with brightly painted walls and tables where they can sit and work on puzzles.

"I've worked hard just trying to make this place inviting and colorful," she said. "I think this is a place where children love to come."

Wilson McIntosh, owner of the McIntosh Book Shoppe in Beaufort, thinks there will never be a substitute for the kind of books he sells.

"We provide a lot of local books that haven't yet gone online," he said, citing novels signed by Beaufort resident Pat Conroy and a selection of leather-bound books.

"You can't get a signed book on a Kindle, or have that fine-looking library that really decorates a home," McIntosh said.

Jennifer Fraley, who sells used books, first editions and collectibles at the Courtyard on Hilton Head Island, agreed that the secret to survival in her business is to exploit what the online titans can't offer.

"I can't compete with places like Barnes & Noble and Amazon," she said. "I don't know how you would maintain a conventional bookstore now."

Instead, she thrives during the tourist season, when visitors to the island stop in for something to read by the shore.

"It's a lot easier to go to the beach with a paperback," she explained. "No one wants to take a Kindle to the pool or the beach."

She added that thumbing down a tablet's glowing screen doesn't hold an allure for many of her customers.

"I can't tell you how many people tell me that there's just nothing like holding a book."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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