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Published: Sunday, July 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Smarts and uniqueness help small bookstores compete

  • Cheryl Steele, co-owner of Uppercase Bookshop in Snohomish, helps customers earlier this month. Steele owns the shop with her daughter, Leah McNatt.

    Sean Ryan / The Herald

    Cheryl Steele, co-owner of Uppercase Bookshop in Snohomish, helps customers earlier this month. Steele owns the shop with her daughter, Leah McNatt.

  • Cheryl Steele works at the cash register earlier this month.

    Sean Ryan / The Herald

    Cheryl Steele works at the cash register earlier this month.

  • Cheryl Steele organizes books earlier this month. Uppercase Bookshop stocks 50,000 titles; most of its books are used or vintage, with a small selecti...

    Sean Ryan / The Herald

    Cheryl Steele organizes books earlier this month. Uppercase Bookshop stocks 50,000 titles; most of its books are used or vintage, with a small selection of new books.

SNOHOMISH -- Leah McNatt didn't have romantic notions when she bought Uppercase Bookshop last year.
She knew owning an independent bookstore would be a challenge. There's competition from nationwide booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. And the rise of e-books has created more uncertainty for mom-and-pop bookshops.
"The publishing landscape is changing," McNatt said. "It's like we're white-water rafting most days."
Despite ups and downs and changes in ownership, Uppercase Bookshop has survived. It celebrates its 20th year in business this summer. McNatt plans to give the shop a long future.
"People feel very passionately about not losing this store," she said.
Don Baldwin is one of those people.
He has shopped at Uppercase since 1997. In that earlier time, Baldwin would drive up to Snohomish from Redmond to help feed his "book fix." Uppercase, which features used and vintage books as well as a small selection of new ones, has always been a great store, he said. Baldwin, however, believes Uppercase has even improved since McNatt bought the shop with her mother, Cheryl Steele, in early 2012.
"They're very friendly people and they have a great selection of used books and new books," said Baldwin, who visits the shop weekly.
McNatt had only lived in Snohomish about six months when she and Steele, who was living in California at the time, bought Uppercase. A few months after taking over the shop, the two women relocated Uppercase to First Street, into a storefront that McNatt thinks better suits a bookshop. The store's previous location, at Second and Cedar, had too much of a warehouse feel, she said.
Spread over three floors and 4,000 square feet, Uppercase is home to 50,000 titles. On one wall, clocks tell the time in mythical lands such as Narnia, Hobbiton, Panem and Oz. And the cupboard under the stairs? It's a re-creation of Harry Potter's bedroom in anticipation of the wizard's birthday party on Wednesday at Uppercase.
Such personal touches, and the shop's book club, distinguish it. Having previously worked for Barnes & Noble, McNatt knows the shop can't compete on price, especially when it comes to new books. That's why she stocks only a small offering of new books that are likely to sell well.
To combat online competition, Uppercase prices used books comparatively with Amazon. Customers can walk out with books in hand rather than paying for shipping and waiting for their purchases to show up.
Regular customer Baldwin sometimes buys e-books through Uppercase's online storefront on Kobo, an online retailer headquartered in Canada. He uses Kobo's app for Android devices to read books, particularly while traveling. Baldwin thinks there's room for both paper and e-books.
"There's something somehow more satisfying about a paper book and the experience of reading it," he said.
Baldwin isn't alone. Despite Barnes & Noble's declining stock price, many analysts still see a strong future for the bookseller, particularly if the company is separated into three divisions: the retail chain, the Nook device digital business and college bookstores.
"Print books still have value," Michael Norris, an analyst for Connecticut-based Simba Information, recently told Bloomberg News. "People still buy millions of them to give as gifts. That tells me print isn't as unhealthy as people think."
Another local independent bookstore owner, Kristine Kaufman, also sees a long future for print. She has owned Snow Goose Bookstore in Stanwood for 15 years. The shop has been in business for more than 30 years.
"Personally, I don't think the paper book is ever going to disappear," Kaufman said.
With more than three decades in the business, Kaufman has seen various trends in publishing and bookselling come and go. Successful locally owned shops distinguish themselves, she said. Snow Goose has a Shakespeare reading club and a newly adopted kitty, named Jenny, in the shop. Uppercase has Harry Potter parties and a regular book club. Both draw from their respective towns.
Kaufman believes that's how independent shops like Snow Goose will stay in business, by being part of their communities.
"That's what independent bookstores do well: getting the right book in the customers' hands," Kaufman said.
Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » BooksSnohomishStanwoodRetailSmall business

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