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Book Exchange battles e-book onslaught

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The Book Exchange’s Elaine Ivey takes a customer’s books for a store credit. The limit is a bag of books a day with the store taking in an average of 200 to 700 books a day.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED May 3, 2013 2:25 a.m.

Shelves and stacks of books, some reaching from floor to ceiling, create a labyrinth inside this Main Street store.

You never know who you’ll find or what you’ll encounter around each turn at The Book Exchange, which adds to the wonderment of it all.

Thomas Jefferson, Richard Nixon and many of America’s legendary political leaders live around the corner from self-help gurus Dr. Phil and Biggest Loser trainer Bob Harper.

Yonder, Duane “Dog” Chapman hangs with Joe “Cool” Montana, and there’s an island home for “500 Places to Take Your Kids,” Pilates and other vacation adventures.

On this particular afternoon, instructional manuals – from SAT guides to GED trainers – fly off the shelves, mocking the others…

Pffft, know-it-alls.

On May 15, this two-room shop in the 300 block of Manteca’s North Main Street where fact and fiction create a world of infinite possibility will reach a hallmark milestone for any small business.

The Book Exchange is turning 20. Owner Cheryl Lovering attributes the store’s long shelf life to its exchange program and customer-first approach.

Customers are allowed to exchange books for credits, making used or new books extremely affordable. (In some instances, Lovering says, impoverished customers are allowed to simply borrow books.) The Book Exchange will take any book, too, even if it already owns a large surplus. Lovering only asks that donations be kept to one bag per day.

The system has 1.) kept the business relevant with its regular clientele and 2.) kept its shelves and back room well stocked.

The Book Exchange isn’t hurting for product – Lovering donates 2,000 books a week to various charities and services – just revenue.

“If you come in with Danielle Steel and we’ve already got 100 books by Danielle Steel, we’ll still take it,” Lovering said. “We take everything and people appreciate that. They build up credit and then they use it. It’s a great system.”

With the last statement, Lovering pauses and then changes tone: “It was a great system.”

The Book Exchange might be one year older, but Lovering fears it is also one year closer to its demise.

The advent of eBooks, readers and online book sales has undoubtedly taken a toll on mom-and-pop shops like The Book Exchange and big-box stores, too.

In January, Barnes and Nobles announced it would be closing hundreds of its store. Borders went out of business in 2011.

“They’ve always been there and I’d really, really hate to see them go,” said loyal Book Exchange customer Sheila Regan. “You see so many people turning to electronic things, but to me, there’s nothing better than a book in my hand.”

Tough times

Lovering isn’t ready to write the final chapter on Manteca’s only used book store, but it’s getting  harder and harder to ignore the signs.

The Book Exchange is doing less business.

Last Thursday, Lovering sent her employees home early because the store went more than four hours without a single customer.

“We don’t usually do that,” she said.

Donations have even fallen off. At the height of business The Book Exchange was averaging 700 donated books per day. Lately, the store has been averaging 200. It’s all contributed to a record-low start to the year.

“Last year, we weren’t this low. It’s never been this slow ever,” Lovering said. “This year has been strange. I have no idea why. eBooks, I guess. I have to keep blaming the economy. People don’t have as much money.

“The last two weeks have been unprecedented in the 20 years,” she added. “We started out slow and had periods of no customers. Compared to last year? We sold a little last year, but … Whoa, we hope it picks up.”

The downturn has coincided with Lovering’s growing disdain for the commute. She lives in Auburn and makes the two-hour drive – often during rush-hour traffic – at least twice a week. She’s made the drive for nearly two decades now.

 “I’m getting tired,” Lovering said.

She has looked into selling the store but “book stores are hard to sell. People would rather start their own,” she said. Based on an analysis by her accountant, Lovering estimates she could fetch $100,000 for the store.

But she won’t sell.

Storybook ending?

Lovering feels a sense of commitment to her staff and the community. She employs four part-timers, including two who are sole supporters in their household and one on medical leave. If business continues to languish, she’ll make every necessary sacrifice to keep the doors open.

“It took me years to get the business built up and I can’t leave my employees high and dry,” she said.

Lovering hopes change is just around the corner. She anticipates a wave of students shopping from their summer reading lists and has begun to brainstorm new incentives.

Customers – much like the Thomas Jeffersons, Duane “Dog” Chapmans and other characters that live on her shelves – appreciate The Book Exchange’s determination during these dark days.

“I always turn in my used books for credit. The women are very friendly,” Chantel Guptill wrote on The Bulletin’s Facebook page. “There is still nothing like a book. I have a Nook and I still prefer a book in my hands.”

They deserve to celebrate 20 years, Regan said, not fret over their future or pinch pennies.

“I’d be devastated,” Regan added, “absolutely devastated. I wouldn’t have access to as many books as I do. I’m on a fixed income and can’t afford to buy a lot of books at the price of others.

“Not only that, if I find a new author and they’re pretty well established, the only place I can find their early stuff is The Book Exchange. There’s another used book store in Modesto, but their people don’t know me.”

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