Watertown bookstore owners struggle to stay in business
WATERTOWN, S.D. (AP) — The book-selling business in Watertown is alive and ... well, it’s alive, anyway.
The city has two bookstores — DDR Books located in downtown Watertown, and The Book Zealot located in the East Point mini-mall across 14th Avenue from HyVee.
Neither of the owners said their business is robust.
“If I’m going to be completely honest with you, it’s a struggle from month to month,” said Renee Scriver of The Book Zealot.
Donus Roberts of DDR Books also used “struggle” to describe his business.
“We pay our bills, and we do all right on making expenses work,” he told the Watertown Public Opinion . “But if we had to make a living at it, we couldn’t.”
The two businesses really don’t cross competitive swords. The Book Zealot almost exclusively sells and trades in used books, and DDR Books is stocked with many new as well as some used books.
The two owners know each other. Scriver took a class under Roberts when attending Watertown High School but is also one of many of Roberts’ former debaters. They maintain a friendly relationship.
They are also both bound to the love of books. To avid readers, perusing a bookstore can take on an almost mystical quality as they seek their next great read. Unfortunately, first television and now the digital age have moved casual reading to near the bottom shelf.
Still, owners of the Watertown shops love books so they push on. Scriver has been selling for nine years and Roberts and his wife, Lovila, for 10, although he’s been full-time for less than three. The Robertses operated a part-time bookstore for more than seven years in north Watertown.
Roberts said Watertown joins only Pierre and Rapid City as locations with independent bookstores. Sioux Falls has Barnes & Noble, but that’s a corporate store. Most of the larger South Dakota cities have sellers of used books.
Their biggest competition is internet giant Amazon, but Scriver doesn’t think her business is greatly affected.
“I think the internet is there if you’re mainly into new books,” she said. “If you’d go to the internet for a book I’ve got in the store, you’d be paying $4 to $5 for it. If you bought it in my store you’d pay $2.80 plus tax for the average paperback.”
How each Watertown store is supplied is perhaps their biggest difference. Roberts buys from publishing companies. Scriver finds her inventory whenever she can — auctions, garage sales, secondhand stores, wherever used books are very cheap or free.
“I can’t buy a lot of books from people,” she said. “If I do buy a book I have to have somebody in mind who I know is going to buy it with cash. As for new books, they’re expensive and nobody around here wants to pay new prices, which is fine. I’ve always said you can’t pay bills with books. I wish I could.”
Roberts, of course, does buy new books. He admits that trying to pick winners is not his strength and he doesn’t have a market research department assisting him. He said he selects too many collectors’ books and realizes perhaps those aren’t the preferred choice of some local readers.
He explained he wants buyers to find the type of book they want but also perhaps find another that educates them as well.
“I believe that’s part of the educational responsibility of a bookstore,” he said. “If that means I’m an idealist, I plead guilty.”
Both sellers said they’ll try to obtain books at the request of buyers, but they differed somewhat on what are their store’s best-selling genres.
“For me, it’s romances, thrillers and mysteries,” said Scriver. “We also have a lot of kids from the Lake Norden area who come in and buy westerns.”
“If I knew the answer to that I’d be brilliant,” said Roberts. “During different times of the year different things sell better. Mystery crime novels and young adult novels — those two would be the best.”
Both owners rely on more than just local buyers to maintain their businesses.
“We don’t have a lot of 5′s pulling up to our store,” said Scriver, referring to Codington County license plates. She relies on regulars from as far away as Sioux Falls and Brookings and as well as many local communities.
Roberts said summer months and the current holiday season are his best-selling times. What hurt his business was the closing of the Goss Building, which had brought tourists to the downtown area and his store. But he was well aware of that risk in 2016 when he took his part-time business to full-time in a downtown location.
“We’re really pleased to have a bookstore here, and the reports we get from customers from elsewhere is that it’s really a good store on the new bookstore level. Our goal is to not lose money. So far, we’ve done that, but we’ve been very effective in not making any, too.”
Despite their problems, neither owner seemed ready to close.
“I guess the bottom line is when you come to work, do you like opening the door,” Roberts said. “The answer is yes.”
Information from: Watertown Public Opinion, http://www.thepublicopinion.com