Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Caribbean Booksellers Cope With Higher Fuel Costs

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 9/1/2008

Even bookstores in paradise are not immune to the vagaries of the U.S. economy. Rising fuel prices have impacted bookstores as far away as the U.S. Virgin Islands, and store owners are coping with the higher costs in different ways.

Jonathan Gjessing, owner of Dockside Books on St. Thomas, still sells books at cover price, but doesn't know how long he'll be able to hold out before raising prices. “I'm just not sure where the economy is going to go from here,” he said. His power costs went up 50% in July and shipping costs are also rising, as freight companies pass along added expenses to customers.

Gjessing bought the 2,000-sq.-ft. bookstore in 1982, four years after it was opened. Though he is located next to the port where cruise ships dock at the island, tourists don't contribute much to his business. “Cruise ship passengers don't buy many books at all,” he said. “Two-thirds of my customers are locals and the other third are cruise ship crew.” English-language guides are popular, as are food and wine guides.

On the neighboring island of St. Croix, Kathy Bennett adds a dollar to the cover price of books for sale at her store, Undercover Books. “It just about covers my expenses,” she said. Bennett relies on a freight forwarder rather than the U.S. Postal Service to keep costs down. A former stockbroker, Bennett moved to St. Croix 27 years ago from New York City and opened her 1,600-sq.-ft. store in 2000. In addition to selling new books, she offers her own oil paintings for sale, as well as the work of other local artists. She, too, acknowledged that the rising price of power is a concern: “My electrical bill is way more than you would ever see in the States.”

A member of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, Bennett has been trying to persuade publishers to send writers to the Virgin Islands for tours—Jimmy Buffett is at the top of her wish list—but rising travel costs are not helping her cause. In addition, stocking books for events is tricky, since shipping back returns for unsold merchandise is costly. “We had two very popular events in the past couple years,” said Bennett. “One with Tina Louise, author of the children's book When I Grow Up, who is better known as Ginger from the TV show Gilligan's Island, and another with celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito.” Each event sold 200 copies, all the books that Bennett had ordered.

Elsewhere on St. Croix, at Treasures Attic Bookshop, Yolette Nicholson has avoided rising shipping costs for the most part because the bulk of her initial inventory came from a stock of some 40,000 used books she bought on eBay, which prompted her to open the store in 2004. “At the time, it cost me more to ship those books here than to buy them,” she said. Nicholson is still unpacking books from the shipment, but because she has built a steady used book business she only opens about two cartons per week. Nicholson does sell new titles—still at cover price—but only in genres where it's difficult to get used copies on the island, such as new bestsellers and manga.

On St. John, John Dickson, owner of the Papaya Cafe (formerly Books and Beans), adds 15% to the cover price. Dickson, a Florida transplant, bought the 500-sq.-ft. bookstore in January. He said that his customers—a mix of locals and tourists—are not surprised by the higher prices. “It's just a fact of life that everything costs more here,” he said.

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