Beating the odds of bookstore failures, Jackson Street expands
April 9th, 2012
Omaha, NE – It’s a difficult time for bookstores around the country, as readers turn to online booksellers, Kindles, iPads and Nooks. But for one bookstore in Omaha, business has never been better.
“Are you guys ready?” Carl Ashford sat in a comfortable-looking, worn-in desk chair, surrounded by piles upon piles of books. He’s the co-owner of Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha’s Old Market. And on a late Monday afternoon in March, he sat chatting with customers as they filed steadily through the store’s open doors and busily perused the aisles.
“It’s like a treasure hunt when you come in,” said Andrew Abernathy, a customer who stopped by the store with his father: their last stop in the city before the airport, on their way back home to North Carolina.
“It’s just a wonderful diversity of used books that you can’t find anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a historical archive of ideas and thoughts that you just can’t find anywhere else. We’re lost without these.”
Jackson Street Booksellers is well-regarded as a quality bookstore in Omaha, with knowledgeable staff and a wide selection of used books. And in fact, business is so good, Ashford said the store will soon be expanding, knocking down the east wall and adding another several hundred feet of store space.
“Our sales have never been better,” Ashford said. “A lot of people come in here and say ‘it’s so great you’re open; you’re the last guy standing; you’re the last bookstore in the world,’” he chuckled.
As a used bookstore, Jackson Street has had an easier time navigating the changes in the book industry over the past few years, as more and more consumers of the printed word have turned to the internet.
Oliver Pollak is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who has studied the fluctuations in the book market. He said the advent of Amazon.com and other bookselling websites presented a real challenge for bookstores.
“Because people didn’t have to go out of the house, they didn’t have to drive, they didn’t have to find a parking lot, they didn’t have to walk the aisles, they didn’t have to stand in line to pay, and then they didn’t have to go back into their car and drive home again,” he said. “They could purchase the books they wanted from an inventory of, perhaps now, 150 million books.”
Pollak said independent new book sellers were first challenged by large chain stores that moved into the market. And when Amazon came online, that pressure was compounded, eventually proving too much for the chain stores to bear either. Notably, Borders was forced to liquidate last year, leaving bookstore shells in cities around the country.
But, Pollak said, used book sellers were able to stay alive by carving out niches in the market. Even so, he said, that market is still pretty tough.
“It’s a risky business, as many businesses are problematic,” Pollak said. “When bookstores go bankrupt, they don’t reorganize; they just close.” Omaha has seen a number of recent closures in the used book market, including Pageturners in Dundee.
He added, “Generally speaking, apple pie and nostalgia, bookstores are good. But there are different ways of getting at reading.”
Back at Jackson Street, Ashford attributed his store’s success to knowledgeable staff, a good location and fair prices.
“I see people in here with their, whatever digital machines they have, probably checking our price against the internet price. That’s fair, I suppose,” he said, adding with a laugh, “It’s somewhat annoying.”
But perhaps most importantly, the store has adapted with the times. While it’s carved out a niche with vast selections of Western Americana and rare books that maybe one person in the world might be interested in, the store has also made its treasure-trove selection available to the whole world – online.
Pointing out a rare find: a history of shorthorn cattle imported into America from Great Britain, Ashford explained, “It’s a fairly specific thing that not everybody in the world is going to be interested in, hardly anybody in the world, and maybe one person in the world, but hopefully we’ll find him.”
Jackson Street Booksellers plans to begin its expansion in May. And in the meantime, two more bookstores have opened their doors in the Old Market, trying their luck in an industry that’s tough to crack but, for many, just too much of a treasure to let go.