Bookstores fight to survive latest plot twists

When Vivien Jennings got into the book business in 1975, people still went to the neighborhood bookstore to buy a book.

Her Rainy Day Books, which at the time was just a paperback exchange, was one of some 30 bookstores in the Kansas City area.

That was before national superchains began an aggressive building boom; before big-box stores such as Costco appeared, selling books at steep discounts to lure customers; and before turned books into an online phenomenon.

Today, Rainy Day Books in Fairway is considered the only general-market independent bookstore left in Kansas City, and the store, like other surviving “corner bookstores” across the country, has had to become a lot more than a paperback exchange to keep the doors open.

In Kansas City and elsewhere, the centuries-old book-selling business is in the midst of a plot twist that has left it on less-than-sure footing. Not only have independent bookstores closed, big chains are stumbling while online sales are booming and technology advances present more looming challenges.

For booksellers of all shapes and sizes, competition is fierce, not just from the Internet, but from changing lifestyles, shrinking amounts of leisure time and shifting attitudes about books.

“We’re getting information in different ways,” said Will Leathem, co-owner of Prospero’s Books, a used bookstore on 39th Street in Kansas City.

In this day and age, he said, selling books can be equated to “being a buggy whip salesman five years after Ford rolled the first Model T off the line.”

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