Florida Keys Business
Sunday, October 7, 2012
A new chapter
Key West's last bookstore still a bestseller

And then there was one - bookstore that is.

Key West Island Books has been selling new and used books on Fleming Street for more than 30 years. It has withstood the trials of time, the ubiquity of Amazon and the advent of Kindle

Like notes jotted in the margins of a near-perfect manuscript, there doesn't always seem to be room for everyone and everything in Key West, and the past few years have witnessed the demise of the local Borders Express, Voltaire and Discount Books. But Key West Island Books has remained, relevant and adapting - just like its island home.

"There's such a misconception out there about us no longer being here, or that we only sell used books," said owner Scott Shaffer. He and his wife, Jennifer, bought the bookstore in 2010 with her parents, Diane and Gary Onderdonk, who own the commercial building that houses the shop. First-floor retail and café space comprise the property, which rents office space above.

Some of the misconceptions about its closure may have started in 2009 when prior owner Marshall Smith died. Smith owned Key West Island Books for nine years, but it has been in operation for 35 years, Shaffer said.

The shop was in limbo following Smith's death, with the employees continuing to operate it, and Smith's heirs deciding whether to liquidate the inventory or sell the business, Shaffer said.

"And they were getting to the point that they were probably going to have to close," he said, adding that longtime employee Suz Orchard "was the cog that's kept this wheel turning, and still is."

Shaffer and his wife had been living in Islamorada running another business when the bookstore opportunity in the Onderdonks' building presented itself.

"We're in the process of updating the store, and are going to make better use of the space," Shaffer said of his reorganization of the shop whose shelf-lined walls were stacked with new, used, antique and first-edition books.

But, he emphasized, it's not going to become an uber-organized, corporate-type of book giant.

"We're going to accommodate the style of the people who have been coming in and supporting us for so long, while also helping newcomers who come in looking for a specific book, author, bestseller or genre," he said. "We'll keep the old used bookstore charm and the Key West funk, but it will be an easy experience for people."

The shop has always sold new and used books, although Shaffer has found that some people think it only sells used books.

A large, new section in the middle of the store features more new bestsellers than the shop has ever carried, while new fiction, non-fiction, local interest and works by local authors also have their own shelves and sections. The adjoining room still features used books and heavily discounted "remainders," which provide readers with new books at deeply discounted prices.

"If a Barnes & Noble orders 5,000 copies of a new book, but only sells 4,500, they can sell the extra 500 back to the distributor, which sells those remainders to us at a discount that we can pass on to our customers," Shaffer explained.

"I think the remainders and our secondhand books have really helped this store stay afloat. We were the only ones doing it, and we're the only ones still here" in a crippling economy and ever-advancing technology.

He pulled a new novel from a shelf. The price printed on the dust cover was $24.95. The Key West Island Books sticker on the front showed a price of $8.98 - for a new hardcover.

Key West Island Books also has a new website that allows readers to communicate with Shaffer, Orchard and fellow "cog in the wheel" Chip Phillips.

"They can ask us whether we have something in stock, or ask us to order a book for them without having to come downtown and find a place to park," Shaffer said, adding that a great deal of locals want to shop locally and support local businesses, but don't always want to deal with the inconvenience.

He's also in the process of developing a weekly or monthly mobile book sale that would sell copies of bestsellers, old favorites and requested books at condominium complexes and other locations around town.

"We'll bring the books to them," he said, adding that he also has redesigned the shop's book trading program. Customers can bring their boxes of old books to the shop and receive a credit toward the purchase of any new or used book, paperback or hardcover.

Shaffer also is planning a host of author signings for the coming tourist season, and has gotten involved with the local school district by collecting required reading lists for each Key West school.

"We're trying to carry all the books on school reading lists," he said. "Right now, we don't have every single one of them, but with enough continued local support, we should be able to stock them all. The past 10 to 15 years have killed so many bookstores, but we're really excited, and with the revamp, the new additions and the new programs - we'll be here for at least another 20 years."

People have been known to get "lost" for hours in the comfortable and casual bookstore on Fleming Street. People sit on the floor or pull up a step stool, have a seat and start thumbing through pages while making their decisions.

It's that instant gratification that helps keep shops like Key West Island Books in business. Online orders take time to arrive, and while a Kindle or Nook offers the same immediacy, some readers will always cherish the heft of a printed book. They'll always savor the anticipation that marks their return to a folded corner or a slim bookmark. It's a feeling with which Shaffer, Orchard and Phillips are intimately familiar, and one that makes the last bookstore in Key West a bestseller.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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