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Helping indie bookstores survive on thin ice

Around 11 a.m. last Sunday morning, a hulking black tour bus pulled up alongside the Talking Leaves bookstore on Elmwood Avenue.

The left side of the bus featured a large reproduction of the book cover for "Welcome to My World," a new memoir by 25-year-old Olympic figure skater, reality television star and fashionista Johnny Weir.

Passing motorists gawked at the image of Weir, clad in some combination of tight black Spandex and animal fur, holding a gleaming disco ball aloft with his stiletto-sheathed right foot. The look on his face, surely meant to reflect his complex public persona, is stuck halfway between "come hither" and "go to hell."

But when Weir made his way to the back of the bookstore, unshaven and wearing a blue sweater, black pants and Uggs, gone was the attitude and the much buzzed-about "flamboyance" that's come to characterize his image. The only evidence of his in-your-face fashion sense was a bejeweled Chanel watch that hung from his wrist (just a touch of Sunday-morning bling) and a fur coat he quickly shed.

At the back of the cramped store, Weir sat smiling and chatting away amiably at a small desk as fans made their way up to him, each clutching a copy of the book they'd just purchased from Talking Leaves as a condition of attending the signing.

For a small community bookstore like Talking Leaves, this was something new. Celebrity book signings were once generally thought to be the exclusive province of larger corporate enterprises, like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Until recently, the community bookstore was a bastion of quietude in the urban landscape, a place designed to appeal more to NPR listeners than fans of "Real Housewives of Atlanta."

But all that's changing now. As competition from stiffens and the long-looming specter of e-books materializes into a stark new reality, indie bookstores are broadening their outreach in an effort to establish themselves as community nerve centers.

For Lucy Kogler, who manages the Elmwood location of Talking Leaves, celebrity book signings like Weir's (and a previous visit from Olympian Apolo Ohno last November) are a way for small bookstores to reassert their importance. Pragmatists might wonder why they should bother trudging down to Talking Leaves to buy "Welcome to My World" for the full cover price of $26 when they could stay in their pajamas and order it from Amazon for the low, low price of $14.44.

Kogler, who acknowledged that indie bookstores are facing a "huge crisis" because of online competition and the advent of the e-book, has several responses lined up. One has to do with the simple presence of real, live people.

"People have to understand that Amazon is never going to have Johnny Weir come to your city. Amazon is not there. Amazon isn't going to send an employee to some school to talk about books or the importance of books because they don't have that presence. That's what community's about."

It's past the point at which independent bookstores -- or even big players like Barnes & Noble, which is struggling to draw customers to their brick-and-mortar stores in the face of online competition -- can steal back the lion's share of customers from Amazon. What they can do, Kogler said, is ask people to modify their book-buying behavior by small degrees.

"We understand that they buy online, but instead of 10 books online, maybe they can buy eight books online and send those other two to us," Kogler said. "That's sufficient to keep us in business."
Keri Thomas-Whiteside, a Weir fan and librarian at Trocaire College who attended the signing, reflected on the importance of holding a physical book and taking it to an actual place to get it signed.

"It's something you can take with you. It's something you can take away," she said. "I mean, nobody's going to sign an iPad at the end of the day."

For Weir, who said he has "no idea even how to e-mail" and prefers the look and feel of a real book to the screen of a Kindle or iPad, the small community bookstore carries a special meaning.

"These kinds of stores, the independent stores, it's what I remember from when I was young," Weir said. "Going into the bookstore, knowing the guy or girl that worked at the front desks, they'll know exactly what you want, they'll order you anything you want. I miss that. Sometimes you go into Borders or Barnes & Noble and nobody even listens."

At Talking Leaves, you can bet they listen. And as the industry shifts with dizzying speed, they're also not above hosting last-minute visits from the likes of Johnny Weir. And that, according to Kogler and plenty of others who want to ensure that the indie bookstore never goes extinct, is a very good thing.

"It's all about how to redefine yourself without redefining yourself into oblivion or into something you don't want to really be," Kogler said. "I think it's really critical to hold ground, but to allow for the changes in the culture."