Magic Tree Bookstore, here in Oak Park, recently celebrated its first quarter-century in business! A bouquet of thank-yous to the many loyal patrons who have supported this business over the years.
Yes, I am delighted (though full disclosure compels me to note my marriage to one of the owners). But in a way, I am also surprised. Independent bookstores by their nature are not financially thriving businesses. Add to this the well-established causes for many independent bookstores recently closing their doors: chain stores (Borders, Barnes and Noble) discounting books to levels their independent counterparts cannot match; big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart pushing best sellers at a loss to pull in customers; people purchasing books at reduced prices on the Internet via Amazon and other online retailers – and no sales tax, thank you. One wonders how independent book shops have lasted this long.
Yet Magic Tree has survived, thus far. The owners – Iris Yipp and Rose Joseph, and former partners Sharon Patchak-Layman and Jan Shoup – were most fortunate to open and operate their business just when children’s literature started becoming the fastest-growing segment in the business. They compiled a diverse collection of children’s titles that cannot be matched in the Midwest, never mind their chain-store competitors. Their foreign language selection is second to none. They sell books the old-fashioned way -hand-selling by committed employees who read and review the books they recommend – while also maintaining a highly active presence on the Web. The store serves as a community hub by holding weekly story times for preschoolers, in-store concerts, book clubs, writing workshops and, of course, author visits and signings. And they do provide discounts on books.
Remember the Harry Potter book releases? In partnership with fellow businesses, Oak Park public entities and its ardent supporters, Magic Tree staged enormously popular events, drawing thousands from around the country, along with national media attention.
The future will be even more challenging for institutions such as Magic Tree. Independent bookstores have been shutting down in droves over the past two decades. Nationwide, their numbers have halved since 1993. Even more troubling, children’s specialty book shops have dwindled from 750 in the early 1990s to a quarter of that by the end of 2007.
Does an independent bookstore go out of business overnight? Probably not. The likelihood is that of a gradual process. A book purchase is made at a chain store, another at a big-box retailer; a book is ordered online, another is downloaded onto your e-Reader. For each of these purchases, imagine a tiny, invisible nail binding the book shop’s front door. Over months, years, that door becomes harder and harder to open. Publishers’ bills are paid not in 30 days, but in 60 days, 90 days. The shop’s line of credit at the bank is stretched to its limit. Employees are requested to work fewer hours. Business tapers off, imperceptibly, until one day to the utter surprise of everyone in the community the shop’s doors are shuttered.
At some point in the future, will there be no independent bookstores?
In a momentous chapter, Stuart Little, the main character in E. B. White’s children’s classic of the same name, challenges a class of students by simply asking, “What’s important?”
I understand that choices abound for today’s book buyer. For me, and I believe for many loyal Magic Tree customers, other factors weigh more heavily in a book-purchasing decision:
Personally talking with a knowledgeable independent bookseller who unearths choices not found through an Internet search produced by a clever computer program
The joy of discovering a book merely by taking the time wandering among shelves, picking and opening whatever draws your attention
Supporting an independent business whose owners live and pay taxes in your local community, who are active in community organizations, and whose business has contributed to numerous local groups over the years
Understanding that independent bookstores – and, indeed, independent businesses of all sorts – add to the individuality, the vibrancy of a thriving town such as Oak Park, and help stem the tide of communities everywhere from becoming clones of one another, with identical chain stores and strip malls
Victor Yipp, writer and longtime Oak Parker, is married to Iris Yipp, a co-owner of the Magic Tree Bookstore.