Local News

Sunday, Dec 15 2013 02:07 PM

Russo's Books to close; will maintain online presence

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Russo's Books at The Marketplace will close its store on Jan. 31 but will maintain an online presence.

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  2. 2 of 2

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Michael Russo of Russo's Books.

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BY STEVE LEVIN Californian staff writer slevin@bakersfield.com

Russo's Books, for nearly a quarter century Bakersfield's beacon bookseller and the only independent general bookstore between Santa Clarita and Sacramento, is closing its store at The Marketplace.

The store's final day will be Jan. 31, although it will maintain an online presence and may open at a new site in the future.

Changes in reading habits, the growing popularity of e-books and online retailers, and an impending lease increase wrote the final chapter for Russo's 24-year run at its 4,250-square-foot flagship store at The Marketplace.

"I haven't given up hope," said owner Michael Russo. "We're still looking at other locations. But obviously, people's reading habits have changed."

Russo's was much more than a quiet carpeted haven of 15,000 books, plus cards, calendars, confections and comics. It served as a lodestar, a community hub where schools, writers, parents and promoters of local events could turn for sponsorship, books signings, ticket sales and support.

Whether a book signing for Iliana Cothers' "Don't Lay Twitchin' in Someone's Kitchen!: The Story of Fred the Fly and Lessons He Learned" or "The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland" by Stephen Johnson, Robert Dawson and Gerald Haslam; whether a Pokemon play and trade session or the so-called "cardboard crack" game of Magic: The Gathering; whether ticket sales for A Master Chorale Christmas or a midnight opening for a Harry Potter book release, Russo's was the organizer, locale and liaison.

It's where schools ordered their books, fans got early issues of sports fantasy magazines, kids came for weekly story times and adults met the likes of authors and personalities such as Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Mike Huckabee.

"It's books," Russo said. "It's community. Books draw people in; they have a special bond with people."

Russo did not blame The Marketplace's landlord, Donahue Schriber, the Costa Mesa-based real estate investment trust that owns and manages 74 shopping centers throughout California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Although the store's lease is being increased, Russo said the landlord "has been more than accommodating" and that the bigger issue is "finding a business model that works."

Calls and emails to Donahue Schriber were not answered Sunday.

The travails of bookstores are well chronicled. According to U.S. census data, there were 10,800 bookstores in the U.S. in 2002, including both independents and major chains, a 12 percent drop from the 12,363 stores in 1997.

The website ecolibris.net estimated that more than 1,000 bookstores closed between 2000 and 2007, with many more since then, including some 600 Borders, one of which was in Bakersfield, and such chains as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton.

According to Publishers Weekly, California had 613 independent bookstores in 2012, plus 97 chain stores and 450 Big-box stores selling books.

But people are still reading. The website sbdcnet.org estimated 2012 bookstore revenues at $19 billion, a 1.1 percent drop from the year before.

There are several reasons for the demise of bookstores. One of them is the growing popularity of e-books, which in 2011 captured $3.2 billion of the bookselling market. By 2016 that figure is expected to triple.

Another reason is Amazon.com, which in 2011 was estimated to have sold nearly 23 percent of all books in the U.S. By comparison, bookseller Barnes & Noble had 17 percent of the market.

Research shows that customers with college degrees make up 57 percent of the book buying market; those between the ages of 18 and 24 and over 65 spend the least on books.

Whatever the statistics, the Russo family's roots have always been in retail, and after years of working for other companies they were looking for their own business. Michael's father, Tony, was a store manager with Montgomery Ward and Target, and Michael Russo also was involved in retail.

In 1989, the owners of the used bookstore Book Mark on White Lane at Ashe Road were looking to sell their year-old business.

"We just felt this was our calling," Michael Russo, 48, said, who was co-owner with his father.

While keeping the used bookstore, the Russos soon opened their eponymous stores downtown, at East Hills Mall and at The Marketplace. It became a workplace for family members; on Sunday, a Russo niece and nephew were working.

Michael Russo estimates there were more than 2,000 book signings just at The Marketplace location. His favorite memory is when 2,200 people waited outside the store for a midnight Harry Potter book release.

Beginning 10 a.m. Thursday, the store will host a "Celebration of Community and Books," offering prizes and other incentives for shoppers.

And the store will continue to provide books to schools, libraries and individuals through its website, www.russosbooks.com.

Russo said he will try to find work for the store's 12 employees.`

"It's all a sign of the times," Russo said. "I'm not down on Bakersfield. I'm not down on books. It's just that the business model has to change.

"We see it more as a transition than a passing, a transition to the next phase."

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