You heard it all the time in Carbondale, back in the 1980s and 1990s. “Carbondale needs a bookstore,” they said.
Coming out of the 1960s, after the town had withered for decades like a water-starved potato plant, Carbondale had been on a cultural and economic roll with a community access radio station, an arts council and a homegrown newspaper that focused on the funk. Carbondale grew the Mountain Fair. The Crystal Theatre opened in what was a condemned part of the Dinkle Building. The Main Street Gallery & Framer took root. The Pour House thrived after replacing the Dusty Rose in a 100-year-old Main Street slot.
Just about all that was missing for some folks, Birkenstocks or not, was a bookstore. In 1994, the late Barbara Anderson gave the town one. “She thought there was a need,” her daughter, Wendy, told The Sopris Sun this week.
Feeling the stress brought on when Amazon started devouring the retail book market in the late 1990s, which Wendy said affected her mom’s health, Barbara passed the store to her daughter in 2000. In 2005, Wendy sold the store to Lori Hutchens, who once worked at Crystal River Elementary School, and before that for 15 years owned and operated a glass-blowing business with her then husband.
“I bought the store when I sold my townhouse, but I’d wanted to buy it when I was at Crystal River Elementary,” Hutchens said while ringing up a steady stream of customers who were snatching up books at half-price on Monday. “My family and I love books.”
Word of Novel-Tea’s closure spread word of mouth through town ever since the “Going out of Business” and “50 percent off” signs appeared in the big windows that face Main Street from the Dinkle Building. During this interview, one regular customer came in and said she’d just heard the news that not only was Novel-Tea closing, a yoga studio is taking its place. “I’m so sad,” she told Hutchens. “Some yoga dude is coming in?”
With Amazon, chain stores and other retailers putting mom and pop operations out of business all over the United States, closures such as Novel-Tea common these days. Basalt lost its book store about a year ago, and that store was attached to some pretty deep pockets. Hutchens pockets are not so deep. “I haven’t had a paycheck in six months,” she said. “It’s all gone to paying the rent (and other expenses).” One of the last retail lessons Hutchens learned, which a friend told her, was to pay herself first. “But Carbondale needs a bookstore. … I was hoping the economy would change.”
Hutchens said she’d been in arrears with her rent ever since the recession hit two years ago. The first three years in the store she’d done OK, and made some changes to expand her line, including cards, CDs and gift items, but those new items “didn’t pay the bills.” Since just after Christmas 2008, she’s had no employees, other than when her daughter, Jennifer Beuter, filled in. “People don’t have the money to shop,” she explained.
Novel-Tea is located in the “newer” end of the Dinkle Building (the one-story section), one door east of the Floral Boutique and right next to Green Miracles. The store is about 20 feet wide and 100 feet deep, with an airy 15-foot ceiling (which is the building’s original beaded board). Hutchens’ cash register is behind the store’s east window. Books and displays fill the east window. From her cash register perch through the window, Main Street Carbondale looks just like Main Street in Tipp City, Ohio, where Hutchens grew up. “Tipp City even has railroad tracks at the end of the street, just like Carbondale,” she said as a pair of elderly woman approached the cash register and asked whether Hutchens had any large-print books. “I’ve only got one left,” she said, directing the women to a section of book shelf that used to carry many more. “It’s Judy Picoult. She’s well known.”
Through her years at the store, Hutchens enjoyed creating an eclectic inventory, based on reviews she read and also knowing the tastes of the town. “Carbondale is a progressive town.” Authors you wouldn’t find at Novel-Tea included Sarah Palin. “Although I’d special order it for you.”
Hutchens said she doesn’t blame anyone for her store’s demise, but does blame the recession, Amazon and new electronic devices such as Kindle and iPads. Hutchens said there are many people who don’t understand that to shop on the Internet means they are taking business away from locals who are there on Main Street to serve them.
For example, not that long ago two women came in and were looking at books. Then one pulled out her smart phone, compared prices to those at Novel-Tea, then said to the other as they walked out, “We can get it for $6.47 on Amazon.”
“People shop a lot on computers now,” she said.
Hutchens said she has until Sept. 10 to vacate the store, but would like to be out by Aug. 30. “It’s just too painful to come in here every day.”
Hutchens said she learned her landlord was making her leave when a man came in one day and announced that he was moving in on Oct. 1. “That’s how I found out.”
Still, Hutchens doesn’t blame her landlord for her store’s closure. “It’s just business.
He gave me two years (to try to come into compliance with her lease).”
Hutchens, who at 52 is a young-looking grandmother, with straight blonde hair and reading glasses that slip down on her nose, said she’s not worried about her future. She plans to get a master’s degree in Spanish and already has three job offers. “It’ll be nice to start getting a paycheck,” she joked.
While customers are sad to see the Novel-Tea go, Hutchens is sad the town will lose a community asset. “Book stores are a landmark in a community.”
Wendy Anderson said she is sad to see her mother’s dream pass away. Wendy enjoyed the store, especially placing special orders for people. “But now, people are ordering more online,” she said.
Anderson mentions the same reasons as Hutchens for the closing of Novel-Tea: the recession, the Internet, Amazon, Kindle and iPads. She doesn’t blame the Novel-Tea’s demise completely on the Internet and electronics and doesn’t begrudge their success. The real issue is right here in Carbondale.
“I’m disappointed in the town for not committing to local businesses,” Anderson said.