Internet dealers crowd out Evanston used-book stores

Vincent Bradshaw

Traditional used-book stores in Evanston are facing extinction as Internet dealers rewrite the rules on buying and selling books.

Online dealers like Evanston-based Robert S. Brooks are replacing traditional independent booksellers.

“Fifteen years ago, there were probably in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 used-book stores in Evanston,” Brooks said. “You could spend the whole day in Evanston just going to bookstores. The internet has killed them off.”

Although he said he feels nostalgic about those days, Brooks decided to capitalize on Internet bookselling rather than open his own store. Five years ago he registered with bookselling Web sites. He belongs to a number of web sites, including Amazon.com, where he sells used and rare books as an independent bookseller.

Now Brooks said he’s actively selling 7,400 books online. He works from his home, where he said he wears “a pair for worn-out shorts I wouldn’t be caught dead in outside.” The chance to work comfortably from home coupled with the larger Internet market keeps Brooks from opening a store.

Evanston dealers who compete are forced to divide their time between store locations and an online Web site. Howard Cohen has been in the book business for 35 years and owns Howard’s Books on 2000 Maple Ave. He added an online aspect to his store four years ago.

The move to put 15 percent of his books online was difficult but necessary, Cohen said, admitting he’s not entirely computer literate. The Internet slowly pulled customers away, and now it is rare for his store to get more than 20 visitors a day.

“It’s changed bookselling,” he said of online stores. “Without both the Internet and walk-in business, I couldn’t survive as a used-book store.”

A new study released by the Book Industry Study Group finds traditional used-book sales declined between 2003 and 2004. The study of publishers, manufacturers and media experts also found sales for online used books rose by 33 percent, while revenue from used-book stores grew by four percent. The study credits increased sales of textbooks at college stores for bolstering the traditional market .

Dealers with stores typically opened them before the online became prevalent, said Charles Kroon, Midwest Bookhunters Association board member. Now used-book stores are closing at an alarming rate.

“When I first moved to Evanston 25 years ago, there were at least 12 booksellers in the area,” he said. There were easily three times as many bookstores around Evanston and in Chicago. For one who loves books, it’s a little depressing.”

Kroon said it’s easier to find books that were once rare using the Internet, and prices for those items have fallen accordingly. But sellers know less about books than they did two decades ago, he said. The profession nowadays is less about the love of books and more about money.

“What the Internet has done is allowed anyone with a book to become a bookseller,” he said. “And the knowledge has gone out the window.”

Reach Vincent Bradshaw at [email protected]