As corporate booksellers have increased their dominance over the book industry in recent decades, the number of small, independent bookstores in San Luis Obispo County has slowly shrunk.
Today, only a dozen remain, but those that do aren’t giving up anytime soon.
Take Carroll Leslie of Volumes of Pleasure Bookshoppe in Los Osos, for instance.
Leslie, 70, has owned the 2,000-square-foot bookstore at 1016 Los Osos Valley Road for 22 years, and the store itself has been open for 35.
Leslie is hosting an anniversary event at the bookshop Saturday in honor of its 35 years, as well as California Bookstore Day, a statewide event to support local bookstores.
The store’s more than three decades of business haven’t been easy, though.
Opened by another owner in 1979, Volumes of Pleasure did well in the early 1980s, but by the start of the '90s, its financial struggles were evident, Leslie said. That’s when she and partner Barbara Strauss, now deceased, approached the previous owner about buying the business.
At the same time, big booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders were beginning to gain market share, forcing about 40 percent of independent bookstores nationally to shut their doors for good, Leslie said.
Volumes of Pleasure escaped the rash of closures, and even saw growth in annual revenues and profits each year of the 1990s, Leslie said. They reached a peak in 2004, however, and then fell significantly after 2009.
Today, the bookstore has about 30 percent lower revenue and profits than it did at its height, Leslie said.
It’s a problem shared by others.
Nan’s Pre-Owned Books in Grover Beach, which opened in 1986, had about 20 percent less in revenue this year than it did at its height in 2008, owner Nan Fowler said. That performance is better than in the years immediately following the recession, Fowler said, due to some small growth in recent years.
Fowler, 73, attributed her store’s perseverance to the fact that she deals mostly in used books, where customers can trade in old books and get different inexpensive ones in return.
Leslie can’t claim any such advantages: Out of the dozen general-interest independent bookstores remaining in the county, Volumes of Pleasure is the only one to exclusively stock new titles, she said. (Coalesce in Morro Bay also stocks new titles, but couples it with used books).
The only other independent bookstores in the county that sell new books are specialized bookstores that exclusively sell books on niche topics such as religion or health, according to a review of the bookstores’ websites.
Because of this, large booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Costco, and online booksellers such as Amazon, constantly threaten her business.
“They’re interested in those big-name authors,” Leslie said. “It’s made it really difficult for us because those big-name authors used to be our gravy — a sure sell.”
Leslie has no plans to close the bookstore, however; she’ll keep it open as long as there are customers who want it, she said.
“Every day someone comes in and either discovers our store, and what a gem it is, or says, ‘Oh I hope you never leave,’” Leslie said. “That’s what keeps us going.”