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Talking Leaves prepares to leave Main Street

It's not the end of Talking Leaves, but it's certainly the end of an era.

The independent bookstore, which has been a fixture on Main Street since the 1970s, will close its University Heights shop Friday and consolidate into its other location at 951 Elmwood Ave. The store at 3158 Main St. is holding a liquidation sale and plans to be out of the building by the end of the month.

Renowned for the quality and size of its poetry collection, the store also served as a countercultural outpost. Customers described it as a sanctuary for ideas; a place to engage deeply via the written word; a place to be challenged, educated and inspired.

But Amazon's chokehold on book sales hit the store hard, beginning around 2006. Sparse retail on Main Street led to a steep decline in foot traffic. And loyal customers who used to come in weekly or monthly, now come in maybe three or four times a year.

Owner Jon Welch said there are signs the neighborhood will make a comeback.

"We'd like to be part of that but we can't afford to wait," said Welch, who is known nationally as a leader advocating for independent bookstores and locally for keeping the Buffalo literary scene alive and thriving.

Brian Castner, a nationally recognized Buffalo author and journalist, credits Welch with helping him become an accomplished writer. Welch connected Castner with publishers and other writers, and supported local literary events.

"Jon Welch is a great friend to authors and the whole Buffalo writing community," Castner said. "I held my first-ever book event at the Main Street Talking Leaves, and ever since, Jon has been a mentor."

Talking Leaves Books on Main Street is closing and will be consolidated with the Elmwood Avenue location. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Talking Leaves has dropped prices on most books at its Main Street location by 40 percent and expects to pare the inventory to a couple thousand, down from about 70,000. Much of the used book stock is expected to go into storage.

"We're trying to do this in a way that we don't lose our shirts," Welch said.

What's left will be packaged, stored or shipped to the Elmwood store. Friends of the store have already volunteered to do most of the moving.

The Main Street store has not been profitable for the past few years. In fact, profits have always been thin. But profits were never the point, Welch said. Talking Leaves' mission was to be a welcoming community space for sharing ideas. It was a B Corp even before that name was coined to describe companies that use business to address social problems. It could've made a lot of money if that was its goal, Welch said, but he said that would've meant being an entirely different kind of store – possibly one without the breadth and depth of its current catalog, without the obscure, hard-to-find, important books, more of the heavily publicized mainstream titles.

But Welch believes bookstores really can survive in the age of Amazon.

Talking Leaves still isn't "over the hump," Welch said. But he sees a viable, growing market for independent bookstores, a statement backed up by the American Booksellers Association. The trade group's membership has grown from 1,400 in 2009 to more than 2,300 today, it said, and members have reported retail sales gains overall.

"I'm sad, but we're looking at this as a refreshment, a reboot," he said.

Consolidating into the Elmwood store means revamping and beefing up its catalog, such as its social sciences and poetry sections. The store will continue to work with Just Buffalo Literary Center and Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center to bring in literary events. It will also offer delivery, which aims to serve people with mobility issues or customers in the Main Street neighborhood that might have trouble getting to the Elmwood location.

"It's been a long run here, so obviously I'm sad to shut it down," Welch said. "But we're looking forward, not back."

Talking Leaves on Main Street to close

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