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Independent Stores in an On-Line World

Rich Egger

Once upon a time, browsing through a book or record store was one of life’s simple pleasures. But now many people prefer to browse on-line, which is making it more difficult for independent stores to remain in business, especially in small towns.

But there are independent stores that are finding ways to keep the doors open. One example is Stone Alley Books & Collectibles in Galesburg. Owner Ben “Stone” Stomberg said he once sold comics on-line. But when the Walden Bookstore in town closed, he got a loan and a grant from the city and set up shop on Seminary Street.

“I didn’t really enjoy selling stuff as much on-line as I did running a store.  I had run a small music store back in the ‘90s … and that was something I enjoyed doing. And since we didn’t have a bookstore in the town, I felt like it was something we really needed as a community,” Stomberg said.

Stomberg said he emphasizes diversity in the shop by selling new and used books as well as comics and vinyl records. He offers wi-fi service and encourages people to spend time browsing. He wants Stone Alley to be a place where people hang out.

Credit Rich Egger
Ben Stomberg

“We’re louder than a library and a little bit more colorful,” Stomberg said. “We’ve got quite the cast of freaks and geeks on occasion but that’s all part of the enjoyment factor.

“We’re always encouraging more freaks and geeks to come out and enjoy it as well.”

Stomberg thinks he’s being helped by a change in shoppers’ attitudes. He believes more people are becoming aware of the impact they can make by shopping local.

“Every dollar you spend, if you spend it at a local business … 70-cents out of that dollar will stay in your community,” Stomberg said. “If you spend that same dollar at a chain or a big box store, roughly 30-to-35-cents of that dollar stays in your community.”

Stomberg said he is not making a fortune, but added, “The lights are on the and doors are open.”

The same can be said of New Copperfield’s Book Service on Macomb’s Courthouse Square. Owner Linda Cox is also trying to create a sense of community. The store hosts events such as Fine Art Fridays to showcase local artists and Saturday afternoon hootenannies to showcase local musicians.

Credit Rich Egger
Linda Cox

The bookshelves at New Copperfield’s are not stocked with national best sellers but rather with books by local and regional authors. The store holds regular book signings with those writers.

Cox said her main source of income is from a farm she owns, but the bookstore can be considered her labor of love. However, she said a bookstore in such a small town could not remain in business if customers did not come in on a regular basis to buy books.

“This community should not be able to support an independent bookstore. But because of the response of this community we’re able to be here. That’s awesome!” Cox said.

Cox said she listens to what her customers want and tries to stock items that cannot be found at a big box retailer.

A similar strategy is employed by Eric Matthews, who owns the Capitol Music stores in Canton and Macomb. The Canton store has been open for nearly 25 years while the Macomb location has been around for about 10 years.

Matthews said it’s important for customers to speak up and let him know what they want.

Credit Rich Egger
Eric Matthews

“People sometimes come in and wander and won’t ask and won’t tell us what they want. I wish they’d tell us because I’d love to order it for them. I’d love to get it and carry it,” Matthews said.

“They don’t realize how hard it is for a small store like us to know what we need, what we should carry.”

Matthews said in addition to CDs, he has sold shoes, skateboards, ball caps, and more. Movies and video games now sell just as well as the music. He also recently started selling guitars based on customer interest.

Matthews said Capitol has evolved into something much different than what he originally envisioned.

“I went from hoping to be an Empire Records style store where I had catalog depth that would boggle most people’s minds to a store that basically, unfortunately, has to skim a little bit in areas that aren’t big sellers in Illinois and in Macomb or Canton,” Matthews said.

Matthews said after all these years, he’s not a rich man but he is doing okay.

“I think we’re here for the duration.”

Matthews, Stomberg and Cox all believe they can remain in business as long as customers make an effort to tell them what they want and then use their purchasing power to shop local with stores devoted to creating a sense of community.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.