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Small booksellers struggle in age of mega, virtual stores

BOSTON (AP) -- Founded in 1872, Lauriat's Booksellers survived the Great Fire that wiped out most of the city's downtown that year.

But 127 years later, Lauriat's couldn't stand the heat from, and the venerable chain announced plans to liquidate its stores last week, booksellers across New England said they are struggling to hang onto customers in an era of instant online gratification and giant corporate chains.

"Eventually there will be one bookstore and that bookstore will be called," said a glum Joe Porth, assistant manager of the Lauriat's in Copley Plaza.

Soon, he'll be out of work and shoppers will be out of a bookstore. The plaza's other bookshop, Rizzoli Bookstore, announced plans to leave weeks ago.

Porth said he sees little hope for smaller booksellers, even regional chains, against the onslaught of megastores -- real and virtual.

"Can you find a pharmacy that isn't CVS, a hardware store that isn't Home Depot, or a theater that isn't a Sony or a Loews?" he said.

Last month, Waterstone's, a popular chain of British bookshops, pulled out of the Boston area, closing locations in Faneuil Hall, the city's Back Bay neighborhood and the Burlington Mall.

The loss of smaller chain stores like Lauriat's, Waterstone's and Rizzoli mirrors the loss of independent booksellers in the region over the past few years.

Membership in the New England Booksellers Association now hovers at 500, down from 535 three years ago, said executive director Rusty Drugan. Of those, 225 stores are in Massachusetts.

To make things worse, the American public bought fewer books last year, 1.1 billion compared to 1.2 billion in 1997. Plus, online bookstores are getting far more attention than they deserve, Drugan said.

"All they have is a database that the independents have had access to forever," he said.

"Independent stores have books that don't even appear on Amazon," he added, citing local authors and local publishing houses he said were passed over by the virtual bookseller.

Smaller booksellers are finally putting up a fight for their corner of virtual book business, with powerful outlets in Harvard Square leading the way for the independents.

WordsWorth Books and the Harvard Book Store have launched their own Web sites -- and

"Real Books. Real Booksellers. Real Bookstore," says WordsWorth's site in a dig at online competitors.

But says it is not to blame for driving little bookshops out of business.

"Only since 1997 have we been considered a serious mainstream bookstore, and the unfortunate demise of independent bookstores began long before that," said spokesman Bill Curry in a telephone interview from the company's Seattle headquarters.

"Whether online or off-line, the people who are going to survive are going to best meet customer needs. The independent stores that are thriving are doing just that," he said.

Willard Williams, co-owner of New Hampshire-based Toadstool Bookshops, said cyberspace can best help his operation by marketing the pleasures of visiting a bookshop in person.

"We as bookstores need to continue trying to make our stores more interesting places to be ... we need to tailor our selections to what people are really interested in," he said.

Drugan agreed.

"It doesn't do the independent bookstores any good to tell people to buy from them just because they're independent," he said. "People need to see the connection with their lives ... local bookstores supporting local kids, literacy programs and local authors."