Bilek ponders the future of books—and his bookshop

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In the age of Amazon and Barnes and Noble, Jerry Bilek is one of a dying breed of independent booksellers. He is the owner of Monkey See, Monkey Read, an independent new and used bookstore in downtown Northfield.

“I am trying to figure a way to survive,” said Bilek, a bookseller for 17 years. “Books in some form will exist for a long time.”

The question that Bilek is trying to answer is who will survive in terms of booksellers and how will they achieve that.

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Last year, Amazon made $19.17 billion dollars in sales and has seen its revenue increase steadily for the past seven years.  Already 14 years old, it provides stiff competition for those who try to make it on their own.

Some, including Bilek, have figured out how to adapt by following the motto, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Bilek lists his entire inventory on multiple online sites including Amazon.com, abebooks.com,barnesandnoble.com and borders.com.

“At the end of every day, I upload all the books I have received and take of the books I sold that day in the store,” Bilek said. Because of his online selling, “today, I shipped maybe a dozen books all over the world although mostly in the U.S.”

Third Space

This works because Bilek found an online niche.

In his store, a lot of sales are popular books such as John Grisham or Dan Brown.

Online, however, most of his revenue is generated through more esoteric books such as Linear Programming and Eco Analysis or Ten Lectures on Wavelets.

“I try to balance the wide variety of books and create competitive prices because I know that I am competing online,” Bilek said. “Convenience vs. price. It is a challenge for everyone.”

There are some things that an independent bookstore can offer that the larger chain or online stores can’t, and that is what Bilek is trying to preserve. It starts at the door as he asks every customer, “Can I help you find something?”

When he can, he calls his customers by name.

“In life,” said Bilek, “we all have three spaces: home, work and then a third place where we go to congregate such as the library, a coffee shop, etc. I try to make my bookstore into a third place.”

Little Return

He brings in local authors for readings when he can.

Last Oct. 23, for instance, Joanna Rawson, a local poet, came in for a reading and signing of her new poetry collection Unrest.

Although Northfielders and tourists are his main in-store customer base, many Northfielders don’t buy books in town. Bilek should know: River City Books, the other bookstore in town just closed, leaving Bilek as the only bookseller in Northfield.

“If brick and mortar bookstores go away, we will lose something,” Bilek said. “There will be no browsing, no place to congregate and less of a tax base.”

Like many other independent stores in town, Bilek is not sure how much longer he can hold on. “I could stumble along for a long time but how long do you want to work 11 hours a day for very little return?”

With any luck, he won’t have to answer that question, and Northfield won’t  become the town with two colleges and no bookstores.