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The Little Read Book in Wauwatosa offers personal touch in times of Internet ordering

July 15, 2014

There are some readers who just like the feeling of books. They like to hold the book in their hand, feel the weight of the spine between their palms and crinkle the pages between their fingertips.

Then there are readers who don't. They prefer to store hundreds of books in one tablet or e-reader, like a Nook or Kindle, to touch a screen instead of pages, and enjoy a weightless tablet that serves as many books in one.

Linda Burg did not think about these customer differences when she decided to open her independent bookstore, The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., 29 years ago, as of two days ago, Tuesday, July 13, in the Village of Wauwatosa.

"I just wanted to be around books and sell books," said Burg.

Now, thinking about cultural changes in reading is imperative to Burg, who used inheritance money to open The Little Read Book. It matters to Burg that some customers shop on Kindle or opt to purchase a book on Amazon.com, rather than in a store.

"It was so long ago that the big fear was that video would wipe out the idea that people will want to read. But there's some people that honestly, truly, want to hold a book. Books are a part of them," said Burg.

"I don't begrudge the people that order online, but the community doesn't feel that. The money goes (online) and it goes away. Here you still see it," said Burg, who advocates for shopping local, along with many other independent bookstores.

Changing over time

Since opening The Little Read Book, Burg, who is originally from New Hampshire, and her staff have grown with the community.

"Kids that were bellies are now buyers," she said, adding that two or three generations have shopped her bookshelves. The store boasts a glowing kids section that is currently participating in Boswell Book Company's "Where's Waldo" game.

While many people choose to purchase books online, and do without the personal expertise of booksellers, it has left independent store owner's wondering what their role is in the community.

While Burg has stayed the course as privately owned, other independent bookstores have chosen a different course.

People's Books Cooperative, at 803 E. Center St., became community owned in 2007 when its owner was going to sell the business after 33 years. It is now run by volunteers and one half-time paid employee.

"The independent bookstore's role may be to have their finger on the pulse on the community," said Seth Schuster, operations director of People's Books "The idea of the mom and pop store still exists with independents. And I think the consumer transaction with an independent isn't so much consumer as it is a partnership."

Knowing the customer

The Little Read Book has played to the strength of its regulars when ordering books for inventory. Burg said many books are ordered with certain customers in mind. Sure enough, the clients come into the store and ask for "anything new" and are often pleased with the new merchandise.

Regulars of Little Read Book started to shift between 2004 and 2006, said Burg, when Amazon.com was really starting to take off. Schuster of People's Books said the cooperative felt the crunch on business at the same time, between 2004 and 2005.

"Every year since then it has become much more difficult," said Schuster.

While certain customers have left for expedient Internet shipping, Burg said she saw a resurgence in pre-teen readers eight to 10 years ago, ever since "Harry Potter", "Twilight" and now "Divergent."

"They just grab those," said Burg.

As for bringing back customers who shop on the Internet, Burg said:

"There really is no way to bring them back. I only think they'd be re-engaged if they understood how valuable they are to the character of the community. Otherwise we'd all be big box stores."

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