How the Used Bookstore Near Me Stays in Business: Update May 16, 2019

Update: Ironically (and sadly), shortly after I wrote this post, Hole in the Wall Books shuttered—but not for lack of business. The owners decided to retire and move closer to family. My post below goes into some of the reasons they thrived for 40 years.

A few weeks ago I visited a delightful little bookstore in my neighborhood, Hole in the Wall Books. I’ve been there many times before to buy sci-fi and fantasy novels, and I had gone over to donate a shiny print copy of The Hunger Games series. I ended up staying to chat for a while with the owner, Edie, to ask how has she stayed in business while Amazon dominates the book market.

An illustration of Hole in the Wall Books. You can see a real-life photo I took here on Google.

“We just know how to sell books,” she replied.

Okay. Got it. So, ah, what’s your secret?

After all, she doesn’t do online orders. Her selection is small and limited. She leaves the marketing and digital engagement mostly to her children. And to call her the “owner” is somewhat misleading: her blue-walled little store is something she rents from an LLC. Even if she did buy the place, she couldn’t increase the available square footage without spending a fortune on renovations. There’s no room add in a coffee shop or host an author’s book signing like other local indie bookstores I am aware of (such as Politics and Prose).

As we conversed she hit on a few things which Amazon can’t offer or match:

A personal relationship. Edie provides a welcoming, conversational presence. Amazon does not.

Local charm. Hole in the Wall Books has a unique, rustic outer look, and the inside is jammed with clever arrangements, notes, and displays that only Edie’s bookstore can provide, in the sense that it’s their style and voice. There’s even a batman sign in the window to indicate when it’s open!

Randomness. When you shop on Amazon, you typically find books that are tailored to your interests and past purchases, or you search for a book that you know exists. You seldom find something out of sheer good luck while browsing around. At Hole in the Wall Books, you might start by looking for something in particular, but then you’ll randomly stumble across other books that catch your eye. (This in fact is how I snagged a copy of Robert E. Howard’s The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian one time I was there.)

See the copy of Conan at the bottom? I picked that up even though I had gone in looking for something completely different. At a local bookstore you can randomly discover low-profile items that an Amazon algorithm does not.

Low overhead. Edie doesn’t have a large staff and an expensive technical infrastructure to maintain. As far as I know she doesn’t even offer wifi—which makes this place truly special, like an oasis of slowing down in an area that’s increasingly hurrying up with new buildings and flashy events.

Roadside visibility. Hole in the Wall Books has the advantage of sitting in plain view along a major road that cuts through the city of Falls Church. I’m sure that that has contributed to its success, though how much exactly, I can’t say.

No, a local bookstore doesn’t always carry what you want. Yes, a local bookstore can be more expensive and less convenient than an online purchase (though to be clear, Hole in the Wall Books is a used bookstore, and will match Amazon prices). But the tangible experience of a physical store that has such personality—well, that stuff sells, too.

As I prepared to leave, I asked if Edie carried a copy of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman. I have read it before (I referenced it heavily in a previous post about the lives of medieval peasants), but I had borrowed it from the library and was hoping for my own print copy. By a stroke of good fortune, Edie did in fact know she had it; and not only that, but there was a newspaper clipping inside the book cover about the author. That is not an experience you typically get with Amazon (it’s not unheard of—the indie vendors on Amazon are known to add personal touches like that).

Anyways, I hope Hole in the Wall Books is around in another 20 years, and beyond.

Something I’ve been doing in the past few weeks is scribbling with a pencil in a little notebook. I used to do this a lot and have somewhat revived the practice. One day I jotted down all the adventures I went on with my daughter, sort of like a mundane storybook in which I envisioned her as a mouse wearing a cape (she loves capes and wears them whenever she can). Another day I just rambled about some world-building questions I’ve been trying to work through for my novel.

One small problem: the notebook doesn’t quite fit into my back pocket. I shall have to buy the moleskin ones that are designed for that. I used to have a few, and I filled them up with notes and ideas and other trivial tidbits. For me, the act of taking notes in a physical notebook isn’t the foundation of my creative writing process. It’s more a calming act and a way to work out ideas, or just to capture a silly moment. I seldom return to what I’ve written.

I do occasionally return, though, and I often find gems that would make no one but me laugh. Usually it’s a quote from someone saying something hilarious, or perhaps a poem I forgot about and want to record.

What I’m reading: About 3/4 of the way through Brandon Sanderson’s engrossing The Way of Kings. I’ve also been plodding through Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” which is a remarkably dense but delightful essay that offers a vivid glimpse into Tolkien’s sharp academic mind.

What I’m working on (in my spare time): I have been pitching an essay I finished to different venues. I also got some time to polish a chapter in my novel, and am eager to get back to it. Beyond that I’ve got a number of essay ideas and blog posts in the works, but they’re low priority and I’m taking my time with them.

Favorite article of the week: Perpetual Motion Machines. A great analysis of self-driving cars recommended in Robin Sloan‘s latest newsletter.