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Bookstores forced to turn a page

To remain viable, innovation essential

Seek Books, which occupies 650 square feet in West Roxbury, was opened two years ago because its owner saw a need for a science fiction bookstore. Seek Books, which occupies 650 square feet in West Roxbury, was opened two years ago because its owner saw a need for a science fiction bookstore. (Photos By Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Kaivan Mangouri
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2011

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Brad Kinne opened Seek Books in Boston two years ago, and he believes he has a found a way for brick and mortar bookshops to survive: be small and find a niche.

“People are prematurely ringing the death bell for bookstores,’’ said Kinne, whose West Roxbury store specializes in used science fiction and occupies a mere 650 square feet.

The future for brick and mortar bookstores has never been more uncertain with low-cost price pressure from online merchants like Amazon and the growing popularity of e-readers, which is eating into print book sales. The change in book-buying habits is affecting not only independents but big box chains such as Borders, which has closed eight stores in Massachusetts this year and may shutter more. In recent months, a number of independent bookstores have also said they are closing, including Village Books in Roslindale, and Cambridge’s Globe Corner Bookstore and Curious George & Friends.

Booksellers say surviving is more than a matter of selling books. Bookshops, owners and managers say, must look for new sources of revenue and consider radical changes such as becoming a nonprofit.

Or in the case of Brookline Booksmith, trying a little bit of everything. The 49-year-old store now sells Google e-books online, holds on average five events a week with authors, and may invest in an in-store printing press.

The events, including celebrity book signings, draw new customers and publicity, said Dana Brigham, one of the owners of the Booksmith. The printing press would allow the store to publish books for first-time authors as well as produce more copies of out-of-print books.

“We can’t sleep through the changes going on all around us,’’ Brigham said. “For most of its history, [Booksmith] has been in a constant state of responding to changes and challenges in our market.’’

Trident Booksellers & Cafe, open since 1984, credits its longevity to its location on busy Newbury Street but also to the fact that it wears two hats.

“I don’t think one could really work without the other,’’ said store manager Max Clark. “People really enjoy the fact that they can come and have cup of coffee and read a book.’’

Trident might soon take its concept on the road, stocking a truck with literature and lunch to bring the store to customers, Clark said.

Trident also wanted its Newbury Street store to become a place where people can socialize rather than being just a place to buy books. So in recent years the store added free events, including poetry readings, trivia nights, and cooking demonstrations.

“People really enjoy having that level of interaction, and with our space we can actually provide that,’’ Clark said.

The owners of Grolier Poetry Book Shop are considering something more radical: becoming a nonprofit. Ifeanyi and Carol Menkiti bought the Cambridge shop five years ago because they did not want to see the 84-year-old store turned into something else. Grolier is not a lucrative business and accepts donations from attendees at its poetry readings, Carol Menkiti said. The Menkitis are considering seeking nonprofit help to support the struggling store or may restructure the store as a philanthropic organization. “This is not a business — it is a cultural institution,’’ Ifeanyi Menkiti said.

Kinne, like the Menkitis, decided to turn a passion for books into a full-time job. Before opening the store, Kinne had amassed a collection of 5,000 science fiction books. Many of the books he sells were purchased decades ago at other used bookstores. Despite the recession, Kinne opened Seek Books, figuring there was a need for a specialty bookstore like his.

Seek customer Jon F. Merz welcomes having another place to read and shop.

“Just browsing and meandering through the stacks — when I can’t verbalize what I’m looking for there’s a sense of discovery,’’ said Merz, who is an author.

Kaivan Mangouri can be reached at kmangouri@globe.com.

Correction: A caption with a photograph illustrating this story about independent bookstores gave the wrong name for the books’ author. The author of the Tom Corbett series is Carey Rockwell.