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Independent Bookstores Face Stiff Competition


Online services like Amazon.com, and large national chain bookstores now account for an overwhelming majority of U.S. book sales. Their purchasing power allows them to offer deep discounts on books and music. But the success of mega-stores and Internet operators can come at the expense of smaller independent bookstores. VOA's George Dwyer has the story of a small chain of independent books stores in Washington D.C. that is trying to hold on.

Washingtonians are among America's most avid readers. And for 30 years Olsson's Dupont Circle Bookstore has offered its customers a cozy atmosphere that is different from larger bookstores.

One Olsson's customer says, "Things that are here, that I would not find elsewhere locally, and so it is good to sort of cultivate that sort of place."

Olsson's is Washington's oldest independent bookstore chain - just five stores. But today its survival is threatened by larger, more efficient national outlets and online bookstores.

Another customer adds, "Honestly, the price matters too, that the pricing seems to be very competitive if not the best prices are on-line for books and I am willing to wait."

Olsson's store manager Chris Leigh says the competition is great, but believes they offer what the Internet stores can’t offer. "Obviously without that there we would do better. However, we are doing it OK, and the kind of people who shop here that does not want to shop in that way, off the Internet or at larger bookstores, it is good to kind of have them. So I am not really threatened by it and as long as we do not go under, I am happy with things the way that they are."

With a staff of just 12, Olsson's store at Dupont Circle is betting that attention to customer service will help give them the edge they need.

A staffer commented, "We have passionate employees who really care about the books they are selling. What we would like to do, we encourage our staff to point out some of their favorites, some books they are passionate about, and get other people enthusiastic about."

Each employee here is assigned a specific set of detail-oriented tasks - from selecting and buying books and music, to displaying and selling miscellaneous items.

A store book buyer added, "Well, the main challenge probably as a book buyer, especially in D.C., is that D.C. is such as diverse city and diverse population trying to cater to all of those different needs with kind of the limited space that we have."

Olsson's remains one of Washington's favorite spots for booklovers. It has become widely known for its various book-reading activities, and both manager and employees are betting that excellent customer service, combined with a choice location will keep them in business for many years to come.

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