The new owner of Garcia Street Books is banking that an old formula, encouraging customers to browse, will help the independent bookstore survive in the age of Amazon’s Kindle and other online services that have eaten into the profit margins of brick-and-mortar booksellers across the nation.
Jean Devine, 63, said she wants the 15,000-square-foot building off Garcia Street and Acequia Madre to “open amazing places for the mind and spirit to go” while readers browse the eclectic selection at a store that’s managed to survive the introduction of chain-retailers such as Barnes & Noble in the 1990s and then the creative destruction the internet brought to the publishing industry.
Two weeks after purchasing the store from former co-owners Rick Palmer and Adam Gates, who had owned it since 2012, Devine said she has come to understand the loyal following Garcia Street Books has earned from customers over several decades. If the store does not have a certain book, regulars will eschew online ordering and keep her up to date about the books they want to purchase, she said.
“What keeps us alive are the people who live here, whether they’re full time or part time,” Devine said.
Devine, a native of St. Louis, said she first visited Northern New Mexico 10 years ago and fell in love with the area. She moved to Santa Fe three years ago, she said, after stepping down as an executive at a Michigan-based management consulting company, Kelly Services.
Her decision to purchase Garcia Street Books came out of a long-held desire to own a bookstore. The opportunity came via an email alert saying a bookstore in Santa Fe was on the market. A broker helped seal the sale, she said. She declined to disclose the purchase price.
The location, next to Downtown Subscription, has long been home to booksellers. A Canadian couple, Edward and Eva Borins, took ownership of the store in 2000 from Greg Ohlsen, now owner of the Travel Bug, who opened it about a decade before that.
Devine is optimistic about the viability of an independent bookstore in Santa Fe because of the creative people who live in the city. She said the pace of life is more deliberate and interactive than in larger cities where she’s lived, including St. Louis and Dallas, where the faster pace prompts more people to order online out of convenience.
She faces much competition — Santa Fe has long been friendly to independent bookstores. In 1981, The New Mexican, citing The American Booksellers Association, reported that the city had more bookstores per capita than any community in the country. A Google search for “bookstore” in Santa Fe yields 14 results.
Devine said there’s a space for both online behemoths such as Amazon and independent sellers to survive in the market.
“One customer said, ‘When I come in the bookstore, it inspires me. …’ ” Devine said. “You don’t really have a relationship with an online ordering service.”
The bookstore’s display strategy, deployed before she purchased the store, is not unlike scrolling through a webpage, with many of the books face-out. This image-friendly display eases the browsing experience for customers, who don’t have to look through shelves displaying book spines, she said.
A sense of place sets online and brick-and-mortar retailers apart, Devine said. She wants Garcia Street Books to be a place where customers can interact with each other and with the world. She’s looking to invite more authors for signings, as well as offer the city’s many book clubs incentives to shop there.
At 5 p.m. Thursday, July 13, Garcia Street Books will host novelist Amor Towles, best-selling author of Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, for a talk and book signing.
On a recent Friday, singer-songwriters such as Eric Clapton played over the new sound system Devine installed in the bookstore as customers browsed. She sat in one of two leather chairs situated in the center of the store, where she said potential customers are free to read, no purchase required.
She’s hoping that providing customers a haven from online connectivity will help connect people; while the store has internet service, it is not available to the public, Devine said.
Justin Horwath can be reached at 505-986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org.