Readers (and actual books) are far from endangered

Amber Unicorn Books
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Las Vegas reads.

That’s not the name of a local nonprofit organization formed to encourage at-risk youth to visit libraries; it’s a factual statement. People who live in Las Vegas read. And not just tweets and Facebook status updates; they read books. The kind with pages that you have to flip.

You’ve probably heard that bookstores are dead, that reading is dead, that video games and multitasking and ADD won the battle for our children’s brains. You’ve heard that Las Vegas is an especially illiterate city. Or maybe you just assumed it. Maybe you looked at our club commercials and our casino billboards and deduced that we’re all bimbos.

Don’t judge a book by its cover; Las Vegans read a lot.

The annual Vegas Valley Book Festival is coming back this November. Last year, the event featured 100 authors and 100 events. Tens of thousands of Las Vegans attended. And they bought books.

And, nationwide, book sales and library circulations are at all-time highs. In 2005, Americans bought 650 million books. Last year, they bought 750 million. And those figures don’t include digital book sales, which have skyrocketed during the past half-decade.

So people are reading—we know that much. The questions are, what are they reading, and where are they getting it? To find out, let’s check in with the people whose fingers are both flipping pages and on the pulse of the local literary climate: resident booksellers.

Barnes & Noble is the biggest bookstore chain in America. They’ve got 717 consumer bookstores and 637 college stores. They sell magazines, coffee, stuffed animals, CDs, DVDs, clothing (e.g., Angry Bird T-shirts), games (e.g., Nintendopoly), movie tie-in novelties (e.g., Green Lantern coffee mugs) and electronic readers. But mostly, they’re still filled with books.

Many Barnes & Nobles stores hire community outreach supervisors, who organize author signings, run holiday book drives and promote literacy. One of those community outreachers, based at B&N’s North Rainbow store, is Crystal Perkins.

Crystal Perkins is one of Barnes & Noble's community outreach supervisors, who organize author signings, run holiday book drives and promote literacy.

Perkins is a mom, a TV buff and a bibliophile. Three years ago, she turned her passion into a profession, and now she sets up readings, book club meetings and poetry slams. She also sells books—at conventions, schools and parties. In the past couple weeks she’s sold books at the National Council for Educating Black Children, she’s arranged a signing for local writer Lindsey Leavitt (author of the tween fantasy books Princess for Hire and The Royal Treatment), and she’s organized a Daddy/Daughter tea party. Perkins is currently planning a Mermaid Ball (because, in case you haven’t heard, mermaids are the new vampires.)

Perkins not only knows books, she knows book readers. “The biggest genres in Las Vegas are sci-fi, mystery, romance, military history and current events,” Perkins says. “Even though we’re not perceived this way, people are interested in what’s going on in the world.”

And how about liberal versus conservative books?

“Both do well, but anything by Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly does really well,” Perkins explains. “I remember when the last Michael Savage book came out we sold out right away. And then some guy came in to get a copy, and we told him that we were out, but he didn’t believe us. He was convinced we were hiding the book in the back! Then he threatened to call our corporate office.”

Perkins’ expertise is young adult fiction. She reads a couple YA books every week.

“It’s the fastest-trending genre in the industry,” she says, “and that’s because teens aren’t the only ones reading them anymore. The first Tuesday of every month we have a book club specifically for adults who read young adult books—usually fantasy. They’ve read Angelfire by Courtney Allison Moulton and Die for Me by Amy Plum.”

Not surprisingly, this trend started with a familiar culprit. “Twilight. Lots of people say it was the first book they ever read. And forbidden love is still a huge theme, but the trending subgenre is dystopia.”

Perkins points to other books that have focused on human misery, like Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel The Giver and the more recent Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins about a post-apocolyptic society in which children are chosen by the government to fight to the death every year.

Twilight got people to notice the genre again, but after they did, what they found was that the writing is a lot better than it used to be,” Perkins says. “Also, now there are more young adult books dealing with real issues, which attracts the older readers, too—people who may have had depression or thoughts of suicide in their past.”

Perkins surrounds herself with book lovers, but she’s very familiar with Las Vegas’ reputation as a non-reading town. If this reputation is not addressed, she cautions, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy:

“I talk to publishers, and when they hear ‘Vegas,’ they think CSI or casinos. They don’t think we read over here. So a lot of times, they don’t send their authors here on book tours. And then the books don’t get publicized, and then fewer people read them. What I tell the publishers is, ‘We’ve got a lot of older readers here, and we’ve got the fifth-largest school district in the country. So if you send your authors here, you’re going to sell books. It’s not like we’re illiterate. Come and see for yourself.’”

“This isn’t by choice,” Lou Donato says as sprinklers are installed inside Amber Unicorn Books. “The city is making us. We really don’t want them going off by accident. To a used bookstore, that’s like death.”

Lou is supposed to be retired, but instead he’s upping his insurance and trying to keep his books safe. In the ’70s, Lou ran a used bookstore in San Diego, and in 1992, he and his wife Myrna opened a store in Las Vegas. Five years later they happily retired.

Lou and Myrna Donato, owners of Amber Unicorn Books can read, and they sell books to other people who can.

“But I kept on buying more books,” Myrna recalls. “So, three years ago, we had to come out of retirement to get rid of ’em.”

The Donato’s current store is Amber Unicorn Books on the northwest corner of Decatur and Obannon. I ask Lou and Myrna the same question I asked Crystal Perkins: What are people reading?

“Science fiction books are moving and fantasy and cookbooks,” Lou says. “But our bread and butter is still paperback novels. The Kindles haven’t hurt us there; there are still plenty of people who want to hold physical books in their hands. And sometimes, even Kindle owners want that.”

Technology has changed their business, though. “Access to information is so much easier now,” Myrna says. “When we had our first store, we’d sell a ton of technical books, but now, you can find almost anything on the Internet.”

Including Amber Unicorn’s inventory. While the store offers online sales, Myrna says 99.9 percent of their business comes from the store.

“It takes too long to list our books online. We use so much detail when we describe a book … it takes us 20 minutes.”

“Forty-five, if I’m the one doing the typing,” Lou interjects.

“I’d like to think we survive because we run a good business,” Myrna adds, before relaying a quick story: Last week a woman came to the store to sell some books. Myrna offered her what she thought was fair, and that was that.

“Well, after she left and I priced the books more carefully, I realized I’d underpaid her,” Myrna says. “So I called her up and said, ‘I owe you another 40 bucks.’ She came in that afternoon, got her money and then she said she couldn’t believe that somebody would make a call like that, to offer her more money after the sale. But since that happened, she’s recommended us to her friends, and they’ve come in and bought books. See, with running a business, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”

“Like reading a book,” I add.

Yes, more and more people are now reading on Kindles and Nooks and iPads, and, yes, in January of this year Amazon announced that e-book sales had surpassed paperbacks. But that’s just Amazon; in America, e-book sales represent less than 10 percent of overall sales.

That percent will surely rise, but booksellers have time to prepare. Barnes & Noble has been selling its own electronic reader, the Nook, for a while now. Some schools buy Nooks for their students, and then the school’s English departments and libraries buy large quantities of books that students check out electronically. Who knows? Maybe Lou and Myrna Donato will be selling used e-readers and e-books the next time they come out of retirement.

One way or another, people are going to buy books—just as they always have, just as they’re doing now. So the next time you hear somebody say that books are dead, that bookstores are dead or that Las Vegans don’t read, have them take it up with Crystal, Lou or Myrna.


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