After nearly six years of catering to Knoxville’s book lovers, Carpe Librum Booksellers will be closing at the end of this year. Although being the city’s only independently owned outlet for new books gave it a unique niche in the market, Carpe Librum’s owners say it isn’t sustainable—and with their lease up in January, they’ve decided that now is the right time to call it quits.
“This has become the community bookstore that we all love,” says Shiela Wood-Navarro, one of Carpe Librum’s four co-owners. “We have customers who are going to cry, I’m sure. And so have we, a lot. But this is just the time when we can make the decision, and we feel that we have to.”
Renewing their lease for another three years was just one factor that’s been looming on the minds of Wood-Navarro and co-owners Claire Poole, Martha Arnett, and Flossie McNabb for the past several months. With fewer customers coming in since the recession struck more than two years ago, Carpe Librum’s financial picture has been getting worse—a point made clear in a recent meeting with their accountant, who showed them graphic evidence in a PowerPoint display. That was the tipping point, says McNabb, whom Wood-Navarro describes as the “linchpin” of the store.
“We have accomplished what we wanted to do, this is our dream,” McNabb says. “But everything’s changed. We’re all in our 60s. I’d rather we go out while we’re all feeling good about it. It seems like the right thing to do. It’s not the easy thing to do. I don’t want to do it.”
McNabb originally pursued the idea of opening a bookstore after the much-liked (and larger) Davis-Kidd Booksellers closed its West Knoxville location in 2000. She and Wood-Navarro had been coworkers there, and they joined with Arnett and Poole to open Carpe Librum in Bearden almost five years later. The concept was very similar to Davis-Kidd, which was part of a small group of Tennessee bookstores, now owned by Lexington, Ky.-based Joseph-Beth Booksellers: to offer a more personable, knowledgeable, and community-oriented alternative to Borders and Barnes and Noble.
“When we opened, we knew there was a void—there wasn’t an independent new-books store in Knoxville,” McNabb says. “There were just the chains. And that’s where we came in. So that was early 2005, and at that point our main concerns were the chains and Amazon—but we thought we could live that way. And then late 2007, everything started changing.”
Besides the crushing economy, Carpe Librum suddenly faced yet another new competitor: e-books and e-readers such as the Kindle and Nook, which have finally taken off after years of attempting to lure consumers away from printed books. According to the Association of American Publishers, for instance, e-book sales were $39 million for August, a 172 percent increase over August 2009 ($14.3 million); calendar year to date, sales grew 193 percent. Throw in big-box retailers like Target and Walmart with discounted bestsellers, and buying books has never been more convenient—a trend that’s been devastating to traditional, independent sellers who mostly stick to list prices in exchange for offering a more selective stock and helpful clerks.
In terms of customer satisfaction and community outreach, Carpe Librum has been a success, boasting a newsletter base of 1,500 subscribers, weekly author events featuring local and national writers, and hardcore customers who even drive in from Kentucky—but that wasn’t enough to support the store’s 2,800-square-foot space.
“We were just talking to one customer, thanking her for coming in steadfastly for six years, and she goes, ‘I do it for you all because I love this store. You’re the reason.’ There are a lot of them—we could count 300 or 400 people—but it’s not enough to keep this size of a store open,” McNabb says. “Or that we’re capable of keeping open.”
With prospects of a near-term resurgence in book-buying customers seeming unlikely, the co-owners met and reluctantly decided that the timing was right to close at year’s end. Neither McNabb or Wood-Navarro wants to believe this is truly the end of independent new-books stores in Knoxville, however.
“It was fun! It was so exciting,” McNabb says. “We made lots of mistakes. But we learned and we’ve grown, and I wish we had six more years. We could do it again. In another lifetime. We’d have all this knowledge. But I’m not closing the door—well, I am on this one.”
“You never know. Life does change,” Wood-Navarro concurs. “It’s going to be a hard thing to leave. It really is. So we want to have a great Christmas, and have a positive holiday with all of our really good friends and customers. Because that’s what we so appreciate, this area and this community right here.”
The store’s official closing date will be Dec. 31, with liquidation sales perhaps continuing into January. A farewell celebration for customers may be in the offing: “I think we’d like to have a big party, perhaps, at the end,” Wood-Navarro says. “We’ll see. We hope we’ll still feel like having something like that.”