News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

January 30, 2010

Mark Bennett: Terre Haute is a book haven

TERRE HAUTE — A quiet spot. A comfortable chair. Good company. Maybe some coffee in one hand, and a book you’re considering buying in the other.

That scene is part of an evolving story.

It’s like a good mystery novel. Avid readers can only speculate on the next twists and turns of the book industry. Will the atmosphere offered by bricks-and-mortar bookstores win back people who started buying online? Are eBooks, such as the Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader, a fad? Or will Apple’s new iPad tablet climb over physical books, Kindles and Readers, and into our page-turning routines?

The plot is still unfolding.

But one element of the story seems clear. Right now, Terre Haute appears to be a book haven for traditionalists who prefer paperbacks and hardbacks.

A sister city in Indiana, Anderson, no longer has a general-interest bookstore selling new releases. On Tuesday, Waldenbooks at Anderson’s Mounds Mall closed. Thus, the nearest place to find the latest New York Times bestsellers is in Noblesville, a 20-minute drive from Anderson.

This month’s closing of a B. Dalton outlet in Laredo, Texas, made that city of 210,000 people the largest in America without a secular bookstore, according to research by University of Maryland professor James Gimpel and the Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation project.

By contrast, Terre Haute — where its population of 60,007 is less than a third of Laredo’s and barely larger than Anderson’s 57,288 — will have four bookstores selling general-interest, new releases by December. That includes an outlet of each of the nation’s three largest book chains — Barnes and Noble, Borders (Waldenbooks), and Books-A-Million.

The current list includes Waldenbooks in Honey Creek Mall, Books-A-Million at 3370 South U.S. Highway 41, and the independently owned Book Nation at 657 Wabash Ave. By the end of this year, or early in 2011, a new Indiana State University Foundation/Barnes and Noble Bookstore building will open downtown, between Fifth and Fourth streets south of Cherry Street, said Gene Crume, president of the foundation.

Book hunters have other options, if they’re looking for used or faith-based books. Such shops in Terre Haute include Open Door Christian Bookstore west of the mall, Readmore on Wabash Avenue, and New Concept Book Store at Southland. And Anderson still features the Family Christian Book Store. But finding a new release outside of the faith-based genre now requires a trip out of town for Andersonians.

What is Terre Haute’s edge on other towns?

“I like to think we’re smarter and we read more,” quipped Mike Gordon, who’s been general manager at Books-A-Million since it opened in October 1998.

That’s debatable, of course. A more likely reason, though, is Terre Haute’s plethora of college campuses. It is home to ISU, Rose-Hulman, St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Ivy Tech and Harrison College.

“I think that makes a tremendous difference, not only having the students, but also a fairly sizable college faculty population,” Gimpel said.

His study of bookstore locations around the nation bolsters that assertion. Campus towns, and those with high-earning career opportunities, featured more large-chain, general-interest bookstores than any other demographic category — 7.13 bookstores per 100,000 households. The second-largest concentrations are in “monied burbs,” with 5.8 bookstores per 100,000 households in those affluent communities within an hour’s drive of a larger metropolitan city.

Those patterns don’t surprise Crume. He’s fielded “when-is-it-going-to-open” questions from profs at Rose-Hulman, The Woods and Ivy Tech, as well as ISU, ever since the Barnes and Noble announcement came in February 2009.

“The biggest piece of the puzzle is the college-town perspective,” Crume said of their research of Terre Haute’s bookstore market.

Book space plentiful

The ISU Foundation — through a partnership with Illinois developer Vermilion Development Corp. of Danville — decided to construct a $7-million, 30,000-square-foot building downtown. It will house the Foundation offices, replace the current ISU bookstore, and include a new Barnes and Noble store. Originally, the project was expected to be completed by early 2010. But the depth of the recession last year, and the sale of Barnes and Noble’s College Division to its Public Division, delayed the start, Crume said. The closing date for several contracts on the deal is Feb. 12. Groundbreaking will be the first week of March. The facility should open by December.

The Barnes and Noble — with what will be Terre Haute’s fourth Starbucks location inside — will broaden the local book market, Crume said.

“We actually think it works in conjunction with the industry here in Terre Haute,” he said.

The current new-release bookstores have deep roots in the community.

Waldenbooks opened in Honey Creek Mall in 1970. In 1991, Todd Nation purchased Campbell’s Book Shop on Wabash Avenue, where it had operated since World War II, and transformed it into Book Nation, which stocks new and used selections. Eight years later, Books-A-Million debuted at a plaza near U.S. 41 and Interstate 70.

The market here mushroomed in a one-year span around 1998, when Books-A-Million opened, Nation doubled the size of his shop, and Waldenbooks moved to a larger spot in Honey Creek Mall. It was “an unprecedented expansion of bookselling in Terre Haute,” Nation said.

The Terre Haute Waldenbooks was unaffected by a decision last November by corporate owner, Borders, to close 182 Waldenbooks shops in the United States by today. Five Indiana stores were closed, including one each in Anderson, Elkhart, Greenwood, Marion and Richmond. Eighteen Waldenbooks and Borders outlets remain in the state. The Terre Haute store has been around long enough to see second-generation patrons, said manager Libby Edington.

She’s not sure why some other cities are without a bookstore. “I think it’s sad,” Edington said.

To E or not to E

So far, the emergence of eBooks hasn’t altered the local market balance. “We really haven’t seen a lot of impact from the eBooks yet,” Gordon said. “That’s probably coming in the next couple years.”

Waldenbooks sells the Sony Reader, but Edington thinks a hard-copy book will always have a place. “I still think there’s nothing like going to bed with a book in my hands,” she said.

The physical books make the browsing and selection process more flexible, Gordon said. “I like to pick it up and look at it, to see if I like it or not,” he explained. “With an electronic book, you buy it, it’s yours.”

The initial purchase price of the devices may be a factor, too. When iPads become available in March, retail prices will start at $499. Sony Readers start at $199, and the Amazon Kindle at around $259.

Last week’s unveiling of the Apple iPad — an electronic tablet with multiple applications — accommodates eBook reading. Nation wonders if it could be a “game-changing” technology for book publishing, just as Apple’s iTunes was for the music industry. Apple iTunes allowed music lovers to digitally download songs, nudging compact discs closer to a shelf alongside vinyl records and 8-track tapes.

“This is today’s technology,” Nation said of the pace of change.

Traditional books, though, will maintain a niche, Gimpel predicted. One of his middle-school-age kids came home last week with a new, hard-copy book. That gave Gimple hope, and perhaps hinted that bookstores will persevere.

“There’s just something about holding the book in your hands that is superior to just reading the words on an electronic screen,” Gimple said by phone from Maryland. “Maybe that’s a bit romantic on my part.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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