Opening an independent bookstore in this still weak economy with increasingly heated online competition might seem more difficult than a high schooler writing a term paper on Atlas Shrugged.
But for Bill Funderburk, it is a dream come true.
The retired attorney, who is an English professor in his spare time, this summer opened Books on Broad in downtown Camden with his wife, state Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk.
Bill Funderburk’s love of literature is a lifelong affair. He grew up in a houseful of books and spent weekends scouring South Carolina for used bookstores. His refurbished historic Camden home has a massive library. And, with the opening of the bookstore, he finally realized his dream of one day possessing an old librarian’s ladder.
“It’s an intimate experience, sitting down with a book. … Especially for a child, it’s a life-changing experience,” Funderburk said recently, standing in the homey store with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a children’s corner and tables of books on local history and Camden-related subjects.
But beyond the bricks and mortar – and a small coffee bar and rear patio that will open when the weather cools – the store at 944 Broad St., brings a technological twist that the Funderburks hope will help it thrive even with increased competition from online retailers and e-books and an economy that is struggling to recover from the worst recession in a lifetime.
They hope to gain – and keep – customers in several ways:
“In today’s world, when you operate an independent bookstore, we strongly believe … if you don’t exist online, you simply don’t exist,” said Oren Teicher, chief executive of the Tarrytown, N.Y.,-based American Booksellers Association. “You’ve got to create a shopping experience in your store, but you’ve also got to create a virtual store.
“They are doing exactly the right thing.”
Back from the brink?
Online competition and recession wiped out some booksellers, including Columbia’s popular Happy Bookseller in 2008 and the big-box bookseller Borders last year. In the mid-’90s, South Carolina had almost 120 independent book stores.
Today, the state has about two dozen, many in smaller towns – like Camden – that are not large enough to attract the mega-book stores. But the ranks of independent book stores are starting to rise slightly, Teicher said. “We’re holding our own.”
Sales by his group’s member stores were up 11.3 percent in the first eight months of this year from the same period in 2011, Teicher said.
On a larger scale, more consumers are “buying local” amid a push by entrepreneurs and community leaders, Teicher said. Studies have shown 68 percent of the money spent at a local store stays in the community, as opposed to 43 percent spent at a national chain, his organization said.
“We might not be at a tipping point yet, but there are millions and millions of customers who understand why shopping at an independent store matters,” Teicher said.
Consumers also value bookstores as community gathering spots, he said.
“People want their communities to be different. They don’t want it to be the same as everybody else,” Teicher said. “Bookstores are a part of that.”
‘A favorite’ on every shelf
While still just being discovered by some, Books on Broad already has some regular customers. To attract more, it hosts regular events, such as the upcoming book signing and Colonial toy demonstration Sept. 22 by Upstate author Sheila Ingle and “Star Wars Reads Day” on Oct. 6.
Then, there is the experience of finding exactly what you didn’t know you were looking for while browsing shelves, as well as a knowledgeable store owner to sell it to you.
“You can get the book anywhere, but if you get it from someone (who) knows about books, that’s what creates repeat customers,” Teicher said.
Laurie Funderburk can’t think of a better person than her husband to run the bookstore, and Bill Funderburk can’t think of anybody more supportive than his wife, with whom he has two sons, Slade, 5, and Burch, 19 months.
Bill Funderburk started out as an English professor at Campbell University before going to law school at the University of South Carolina, where he has taught English part-time for more than 30 years. He retired last year as an attorney with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.
“He knows his books,” Laurie Funderburk said. “He knows his writers.”
So what is his favorite book?
Bill Funderburk said it is hard for him to pick just one.
“I could pick a favorite off of every shelf.”