Full disclosure: I am not impartial on the subject of The Chinook Bookshop. For the past 12 years, I have spent a good part of almost every Saturday and/or Sunday propped in one of the store's comfortable chairs, reading a book while eager customers and booksellers swirled around me. The Chinook has been the first and last place I have taken family and friends when they came to Colorado Springs for a visit. And The Chinook, anchored on the western edge of downtown's Acacia Park, became my 16-year-old son's first employer last year when he took the job of cleanup boy.
I had always loved the store for its strong collection, for its knowledgeable and helpful staff, for its comforting atmosphere that invited customers to linger and stay. When my son entered co-owner Dick Noyes' stringent training program to learn how to properly mop floors, dust shelves and clean bathrooms, I learned more about the store -- that at The Chinook, every employee was treated as a valuable member of a unique and essential team.
That is a small part of the reason that I and a huge number of the community of Colorado Springs are still reeling from the news, disclosed last month, that The Chinook Bookshop would close its doors permanently on its 45th birthday, June 15. Dick and his wife, co-owner Judy Noyes, are retiring from the business of bookselling and the store will not pass into new hands.
Now, as it turns out, we will have even less time to say goodbye. Last week, the Chinook staff began telling its customers to expect Saturday, May 15 to be the last day of business.
"Our customers have been overwhelming in their response," said Judy Noyes in a recent interview at the store. Seated at the yellow table in front of the store's central counter, we were interrupted over and over as customers stopped by to wish the Noyeses well in their retirement and to express their sorrow over the store's closing.
The shelves were already near bare, the back two rooms completely emptied of stock. Tables, chairs, shelves, file cabinets and rolling stools all bore price tags, many marked with a buyer's name. Even the store's signage, including the large hand-lettered posters of corny puns ("Contemplate Your Novel") from 45 years worth of front-window dressing, Judy's creations, were flying out the door in the hands of customers who wanted a small piece of the store to keep.
"We've pulled these old signs and pictures from the dimmest, darkest corners of the store," said Dick Noyes, "and people are buying them. Someone bought the pointing hands yesterday." The pointing hands hung overhead, guiding customers to sales tables and special displays.
"Someone asked about The Big Red Sign," he said of the familiar red board hanging over a sale table "That's one I'm keeping."
The four options
The closing of The Chinook Bookshop echoes the closings of thousands of independently owned bookstores across the United States over the past decade. Combined market forces -- the Internet, large chain book retailers Barnes & Noble and Borders, and discount stores like Wal-Mart and Costco -- have chipped away at revenues, while demographics reflect a move toward more suburban shopping in big-box complexes located near new housing developments.
When he is asked why he didn't pass the Chinook on to his children, or to a new owner, Dick Noyes now simply hands his customers a copy of a recent article by a freelance business writer from the business section of the local Gazette. The author, Tuck Aikin, summarized the Noyeses' four options, given that their annual revenues "had declined roughly 40 percent from their best years."
They could pass the store on to heirs and pass the business's problems on to them as well. They could continue operating the store until they were forced to close, an option "too difficult to stomach." They could sell the business, assuming they could garner a price higher than the value of the liquidated assets of the store -- a difficult proposition for a business with little to no prospects for growth. Or they could close the business and sell the assets, leaving on a high note, a sensible option that's "not fun, but realistic."
After years of discussion with their children who also served as Chinook board members, and with Dick's brothers who were businessmen, the Noyses chose the fourth option hesitantly, knowing what the town would lose when the store and its staff were gone.
"What you're not going to see any more are stores our size," said Dick. "Independents won't totally disappear, but they will be smaller, more specialized, with a cat in the window, a pot of tea and comfy chairs.
"There's a place for that as long as the city's big enough to support it."
But the era of independent book stores that boast expert staffs and a more varied and complex selection of titles than the big-box retailers -- with the exception of independent superstores like Denver's Tattered Cover or Portland's Powell's, a 43,000-square-foot giant -- is over, says Dick Noyes.
What's lost is the expertise of the buyer, trained to work closely with publishers' representatives to recognize potentially excellent authors and titles in their specific areas -- fiction, history, cookbooks, children's books, etc. -- and the art of the "hand sell," a bookseller passing on personally to the customer his or her passion for a particular new book.
If it sounds quaint and antiquated, it is not. Independent booksellers are responsible for the phenomenal success of first-time author Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, for bringing attention to the novels and nonfiction of Barbara Kingsolver, for making Amy Tan's name a household word in America. Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a strange literary treatment of a difficult genre, was an independent bookseller's favorite kind of discovery, passed on from hand to hand, bookseller to customer, customer to other customers, until it eventually hit the best-seller list, then became a blockbuster film.
According to publishers' representative Eric Boss, Colorado Springs is losing with The Chinook a treasure trove of book knowledge.
"These eminently worthy booksellers have for decades furnished the city with a source of individually chosen, personally recommended and lovingly cared for works of literature," said Boss in an e-mail urging Springs media to take notice of the closing. "In the absence of The Chinook Bookshop, [in Colorado Springs] there will be nowhere one may seek recommendations of alternative literature, deep knowledge of booklore, authors and titles of the past, present and future, and the friendly, collegial atmosphere which has characterized this treasure of culture for 45 years."
Not always as they appear
Dick Noyes believes the rise in Internet book buying, via companies like Amazon.com, hurt The Chinook's bottom line more than any other market factor.
"It's easy," he observed. "People's buying habits are changing."
Some could argue, says Noyes, that the Internet is a "boon to publishing," making it possible for more people to purchase books at lower costs, with greater ease. In fact, Internet bookselling has aided growth in one aspect of the book industry -- used book sales.
But hidden "handling" charges, combined with the high price of shipping charged by companies like Amazon, negate perceived savings, says Noyes, and what you see on the Internet isn't always what you get.
Indeed, in 1999, Amazon.com was outed by the New York Times for selling "placement packages" to book publishers. For $5,000 to $12,000, the Times reported, Amazon would feature a publisher's chosen title among the "Bestsellers," "New and Notable," and "What We're Reading," or "Destined for Greatness" sections of the Web site's home page.
Some argued that product placement like this, with paid promotions from publishers, was already well established at big chain stores and discount stores where massive displays, paid for by the publisher, were common.
But on the Internet, where the book itself was not visible, such paid promotion under misleading titles was perceived as a direct breach of the online community's trust. Amazon responded swiftly, agreeing to disclose paid placements to customers, albeit on a hard-to-find disclosure page somewhere on the site.
Since 1994, The American Booksellers Association -- the national trade organization of independent booksellers of which Dick Noyes was president in 1974 -- has twice filed lawsuits against publishers and the large chain bookstores for illegal monopolistic business practices they claim have hurt the ability of the independents to compete in the bookselling arena.
Ten years ago, the ABA brought suit against six big publishers, charging illegal preferential treatment that gave big chains discounts and advertising money in violation of the Robinson-Patman Act, a federal antitrust statute. Two years later, the ABA and independents were paid large settlements -- Penguin alone paid $25 million. Publishers denied any wrongdoing but the suits forced publishers to commit to fair business practices.
In 1998, the ABA and 23 independent bookstores from across the country changed tactics and filed suit against industry giants Barnes & Noble and Borders. According to Wired News, the lawsuit alleged that Barnes & Noble and Borders "illegally request[ed] extra discounts from publishers, as well as better terms for payments and unsold book returns -- and [got] them, thanks to their market share."
While Barnes & Noble stated that it "follows accepted industry practices in all of its business dealings," according to Wired, the ABA's lawyers argued that the two companies were "moving toward monopoly status" and that their lawsuit, demanding fair competitive practices would benefit publishers as well as independent booksellers, guaranteeing that the superstores would not undercut the publishers' costs for sales or returns.
The judge refused class-action status to the ABA and its members, but a settlement for damages was awarded to the independents in the case. Still, the costs of the lawsuit far outweighed the settlement for both sides, and the judge's ruling did little to change business practices that favored the larger chains.
Rights to free speech
In its 45 years, The Chinook Bookshop has seen economically prosperous decades and welcome popularity in the community, and has engaged in many battles over First Amendment rights to free speech. In a perfect world, the owners would be rewarded for their sound business practices, their unwavering values and their vast knowledge of books and the industry; they would see their creation pass into the hands of the next generation of booksellers.
But times have changed, the bookselling industry has changed, and like thousands of other independents, The Chinook's days are done.
What will linger is the legacy Dick and Judy Noyes have left the community of Colorado Springs.
They leave a legacy of committed outspokenness against what they perceive as rigid intolerance. In the early '90s, at the height of the Amendment 2 controversy that divided Colorado Springs over the gay rights issue, the Noyeses' grandson, Will Boddington, drew a sign showing support for gays against groups that sought to marginalize them. It read simply: Hate Free Home. A group of local mothers printed the posters and Judy and Dick gave hundreds of them away at the store. Across Colorado Springs, living room windows and front doors displayed the sign. Some homes still have them on display, a decade later.
In its waning days, The Chinook check-out counter still displays a petition against provisions of the 2002 PATRIOT Act that threaten the privacy of book buyers.
Dick Noyes took his commitment to privacy a step further.
"I took measures to make sure if the FBI came in to check our sales records, there would be none," he said. "This is something an independent bookstore can do that a chain never would."
The Noyeses leave behind and continue a proud legacy of community involvement. Dick Noyes served as vice-chairman of the city's Charter Review Commission 12 years ago; Judy completed a four-year term on the City Council in 2003 and serves on the current Charter Review Commission.
The Chinook and the Noyeses leave behind a commitment to excellence and fair, respectful management practices that nurtured a staff with an average staying power of 17 years. Phyllis Zell came to The Chinook in 1967 and left in 2003. Claudia Pino came fresh from college in the '70s and is still there. So are Linda Chase, Susan Potterat and John Stone, who joined the staff in the '80s, and Meg Sherman, who came in the '90s. Their names and faces are as familiar, if not more familiar, to many in Colorado Springs as their neighbors' or their children's school teachers'.
Perhaps most importantly, the Noyeses leave behind a community of grateful patrons who played as children in the store's Monkey House, and grew up to be independent-minded readers always in search of a good bookseller and a great book in whatever city they visit or inhabit.
Hundreds sent letters to the Noyeses when they heard the store was closing. One letter, from a lifelong customer, summed up the experience of growing up visiting the store:
I will remember Christmas times and coming in from a snowy street and tracking wet puddles all over the floor but appreciating the warmth and how suddenly I had to stop and slow down to really LOOK at ALL THOSE BOOKS! And feeling like there was never enough time and wanting to stay hidden somewhere behind a bookcase and listen to some learned, witty people discuss the merits of one book or another in a friendly, bantering kind of way.
I am remembering that this was a large part of my childhood, a large part of my dreams and aspirations, a huge part of my parents' lives and something that is now passing, changing.
The Noyeses leave behind a legacy of hard work. Their daughter, Catherine Boddington, says there were many parallels between the first five years of the store and the last five years, in terms of stress and fear of survival.
"People don't really understand how hard it was," she said. "My father worked all day, came home for dinner, went back and worked till 11 p.m. For many years."
But survive they did, and for 45 years, The Chinook Bookshop was an intellectual and artistic center for Colorado Springs, a world of ideas contained in a lively little bookshop.
Elizabeth Geiser, director of the Publishing Institute of the University of Denver, has worked with the Noyeses for many years, inviting them each summer to speak to the students at the institute about the independent bookselling business. The Noyeses, she says, unlike the leadership of the mega-stores who are part of a corporate structure and "move from opportunity to opportunity," planted themselves in one place and became an indelible part of the community.
"Dick and Judy are part of the fabric of the town, the city," said Geiser. "They've been so involved. They know the people of the community."
That's not to say, says Geiser, that the larger chain stores don't also have people committed to the community and who, in many cases, have brought books to communities where, before, people could only order books from Book of the Month or Literary Guild.
But there is something unique about a good independent bookstore, Geiser adds.
"It's just the depletion of community commitment and personal commitment to a book that I regret when I see these stores close," she said.
"Dick and Judy Noyes not only represent the best of the independent spirit, but they are uncompromising in the best sense of the word, in their values.
"[Their closing] is sad; it's poignant. But what a way to go, with your values intact, your standards not compromised one teeny-weeny iota, and with applause, with proof of this deep impact you've made on the community.
"How many people can claim that?"