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Bookstores come and go, but books go on and on

The Half Price Books store in Highland Park, which opened in September 2008, is closing July 8; the Dallas-based company says the book industry is strong, but traffic at that location lagged. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

It would seem the perfect business model.

Your suppliers bring inventory directly to your store, unbidden. It arrives continuously in shopping bags and cardboard boxes. Most sellers don’t set prices, but generally accept whatever you decide to pay them. Then you mark up the goods to what you feel the market will bear and sell them.

Half the time your suppliers hang around while you decide what pittance to offer, then spend the money you just gave them on the marked-up goods that others have previously sold you.

When I first walked into Half Price Books, I felt a sort of vertigo. The books … they were so cheap. So very inexpensive. Brand new books, for half of what they cost at regular bookstores, plus shelves and shelves of used books, not at jacked-up antiquarian bookshop prices, but for a few bucks. Sometimes a dollar.

OPINION

Now the store in Highland Park is going out of business. A letter posted on the door offers the bright spin:

“The independent bookstore industry has been lucky to see positive growth during the past few years. In fact, Half Price Books has opened two stores in 2018 including our new store in Vernon Hills. However, while things are improving in the book industry world, we as booksellers need to be smart about the business decisions we made.”

That’s true. According to the American Booksellers Association, sales at U.S. bookstores are up 5 percent this year. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of independent book outlets rose 35 percent.

But a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some vessels swamp and sink. The Highland Park Half Price Books closes Sunday, July 8.

“We had to close a few of our places,” said Emily Bruce, PR manager for Half Price Books, based in Dallas, which runs 125 book stores in 17 states. “We take a look at how the location is doing, and unfortunately this one just didn’t have enough traffic.”

That’s my fault. Lately I’d stop by, listlessly browse the titles, but never seemed to find anything of interest. I used to come out of there with armloads of books.

Maybe some blame belongs to Audible, Amazon’s audio book service. I got hooked listening to the 21 Jack Aubrey novels, and now I’m immersed at least an hour a day, between walking the dog and taking the train.

The assumption is that technology erodes literacy, but it can expand it. With audio books I tackle works I’d never cracked before. Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Thick books which daunted me before — too heavy to lug — now mean getting the most mileage out of my $14.95 monthly fee. Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” sat on my shelf unfinished for 20 years as I avoided attempting its 827 pages. Last month I breezed through.

Don’t forget e-books. I got my wife a Kindle and she reads it with unconcealed delight. E-books aren’t to blame though.

“E-books hit their height in popularity from 2008 to 2010,” said Bruce. “They now seem to be trending downward. Books will definitely be the core of our business for the long haul. People like to have a real physical book in their hands.”

That we do. A physical book is there, pleading to be read. When Half Price Books’ Highland Park branch is long gone, replaced with a Dollar Store, I’ll remember spying a set of James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” three volumes in marbleized boxes.

I’d always wanted to read it. But the set was $30. A lot for a work dense with lengthy footnotes and paragraphs in Latin, a book that might sit there, untouched. But I kept my eye on it, and when Half Price had one of their sales swept in and grabbed it for $20.

My copy is thick with colorful Post-It notes marking remarkable passages. Samuel Johnson’s articulate struggle to resist wine inspired me to write my own recent book, with Sara Bader, “Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery” (issued in paperback last Friday).

Books themselves have no value. Nothing is worth less than a book you don’t want to read. The value comes from absorbing the words within, and whether you do that from a printed page, an electronic screen, or through headphones is increasingly a matter of personal style. That said, I will miss Half Price Books on Skokie Boulevard.