Tonawanda News

December 29, 2012

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Paperback Swap N' Shop closing after 38 years on Webster Street

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — For decades, Doris Spencer has watched Webster Street from behind the big glass windows at Paperback Swap N' Shop, overseeing the passage of thousands of books across her front counter and introducing readers young and old to new authors and beloved stories.

But in an age of e-books and tablets and online shopping sites, she said, the used book business just isn't viable anymore. The store, which has existed at one location or another on the street for 38 years, will close Jan. 26.

"I love what I do," Spencer said. "I've always been a reader. But it's changed. The whole concept of reading has changed. We're not making enough money to stay in business anymore.

"It is a shame, but I think it's time."

The used bookstore has been in its current location for 19 years. Spencer has worked there for 32 years, starting out as a 24-year-old single mom with two children who needed a part-time job in a location to which she could walk. Eventually, she became the manager, then bought the store 22 years ago when the owner, who lived in Texas, wanted to sell.

The downturn, she said, started about three or four years ago, when e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook first started catching on. 

"That's exactly when our business started dropping," she said. "It's convenience. You can take it on vacation. ... and if you can't sleep at 3 a.m., you can just download a book.

"It's winter. There are a lot of new e-readers out there right now. And come spring, they're going to tear up the street for the new water lines. That would be the kiss of death anyway. It's not the best time to go out of business, but it has to be done."

Jay Soemann of Walker Bros. and Monroe Jewelers, who can look out his front window and see Spencer's shop across the street, said she's been a wonderful member of the Downtown Merchants Association for years.

"Doris has been a good supporter of Webster Street and downtown in general over the years," he said. "We're sorry to see her go. That store's been a Webster Street staple for 30-plus years. But we certainly wish her the best."

Glenna Sternin of Partners in Art, the shop's neighbors for many years, said she was shocked to see the "store closing" signs up.

"I was just so heartbroken," she said. "That's very sad, because she's been here longer than we have. And she's been very good to me, saving me books over the years. But sometimes it's just time. It really was a shock."

In addition to her front-row seat on Webster Street and its changes, Spencer has also had a front-row seat to other changes in people's reading tastes over the years, watching interests veer from Harlequin romances to more ... explicit ... materials and seeing genres change and adapt.

"When we started, we had mystery and detective, and we had horror. Now it's serial killers, thrillers, medical thrillers, supernatural thrillers ... there are so many subcategories now. It's just trying to find out where to put them all," Spencer said, adding that the science fiction/fantasy and romance genres have also splintered.

Reading habits changed after Sept. 11, 2001, as well, she said, as people backed away from anything bloody or scary.

"They wanted more family-friendly books," she said. "Not any horror at all. I think that's when the cozies (mysteries) picked up. (The protagonist) could trip over the dead bodies, but you didn't get the blood and guts."

All books at the shop are currently 80 percent off their cover price. Everything that's left after the store's closing day Jan. 26 will be donated to Habitat for Humanity's Buffalo ReUse.

And then Spencer — who has only taken three days off over the past 19 years, when her daughter was married — will move on to the next phase of her life, although she's not sure what it will entail right now.

"I will miss my customers," she said. "Some of them have been visiting here longer than I have. They're the readers. They're slowing down, but aren't we all?"

Soemann said that can be the hardest part when a longtime store closes its doors.

"Customers are like family when you're in business," he said. "You see these people day in and day out throughout the years. I think that's the thing that's the hardest for people when you close a store or retire."