Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Kindle, Nook: All are competing for the attention of digital readers this holiday season.
But local bookstores say their customers still want to unplug with their favorite book — the paper kind that does not require batteries or an Internet connection.
“Even if they have an eReader, people still enjoy a book,” said Rosalyn Lifshin, co-owner of Sun Rose Words & Music in Ocean City.
Among the popular titles this year are historical tomes about President Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, Safari pop-up books for children and all things Hobbit, she said.
Lifshin, 57, of Ocean City, said she was concerned initially about the popularity of eReaders last Christmas. Online sales have taken a toll on bookstores in New Jersey, which have fallen in number from 277 to 207 over 10 years, according to the last census. But electronic tablets proved to have a negligible effect on her store’s sales this year.
“We were worried, but then things leveled out. There’s still a great market from people who want books,” she said.
Books-A-Million, of Birmingham, Ala., which operates 257 stores, including one in Mays Landing, saw its net sales increase by 11 percent in the third quarter to $105 million, according to its filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The company’s third-quarter earnings statement said eBooks and other electronics have accounted for just 2 percent of its sales this year.
Books-A-Million’s business strategy calls for offering more toys, games and other gifts for the holiday season.
“People want to give tangible gifts at the holidays,” said Amy Lombardo, owner of Bogart’s Books & Cafe in Millville. Her store specializes in discounted used books.
“The younger generation is coming into the store with an electronic device in hand, seeing if we have it first before they decide to buy online,” she said. “A lot of times if we have it, it will be cheaper than on the eReader.”
Lombardo said her store fights back against faceless competition by drawing customers with live entertainment and a social setting they can’t experience online.
“Overall, I think the eReader has affected book sales, but not during the holidays,” she said.
The new Cape Atlantic Book Co., on Cape May’s Washington Street Mall, is celebrating its first holiday season. So far, sales are brisk, said owner Tony Herr, 48, of North Wildwood.
“I don’t feel the presence of eBooks will affect our sales. We have a completely different market in Cape May,” he said.
Still, Herr said he is sure many of his customers already have a tablet or eReader at home. He recently got one as a gift.
“I think people read both formats. But if you’re looking at holiday sales, I think people might be more inclined to buy a book as a gift for someone,” he said. “I hear a lot of comments about how people still like to feel the book in their hands.”
Digital book pricing can be an advantage or disadvantage to retailers. Herr said eBooks are often less expensive than their hardbound cousins when they are first released. But that shifts as the books get into later printings.
“A just-released novel sells for $27 as a hardbound but just $15 on an eReader,” he said. “But when the book goes from hardbound to paperback, the price drops. That doesn’t happen on an eReader.”
Likewise, most bookstores have bargain racks for “remaindered” books that are sent back to a publisher for redistribution. Those are often marked down steeply, but the same books will be double or even triple the price online.
When it comes to digital media, independent booksellers don’t have to be left out in the cold. Herr said he has been approached about joining the American Booksellers Association’s online store through Kobo eBooks.
Customers buy the Kobo readers at independent bookstores, which get money for every digital purchase the customer makes at home.
“It’s not something we offer at this point. It’s on the horizon,” Herr said.
More small bookstores are offering the online option, said Dan Cullen, spokesman for the 1,600-member American Booksellers Association.
“For hundreds of our members, being able to have the option to sell digitally is something they want to do,” he said.
The trade group had tried to help bookstores take advantage of digital sales a year ago through the Google Play store, but few customers signed up through their local bookstores, he said.
“Not having an electronic device in the store proved to be an impediment in connecting the brick-and-mortar store with the digital content in the consumers’ minds,” he said.
Buying digital content through their local bookstores is one way customers can show their appreciation to their local small businesses, he said.
“Customers now realize that they have seen valued and cherished institutions close because of a lack of support in the community,” he said.
Meanwhile, the economic forecast for booksellers is promising. Cullen said he expects good sales around the holidays, when people are looking for more personal gifts. But he said it’s important for local retailers to be able to provide the content their customers want, regardless of the format.
“We want our booksellers to always be in a position to say yes to their customers,” he said.
Cape May’s Herr said he still regularly uses his tablet at home — but not for reading.
“I use it to listen to music,” he said.
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