Press & Media » Mail Tribune


Finding Refuge In The Stacks Library Use Increases As Consumers Back Off From Buying Books, Renting Movies

Mail Tribune (Newspaper) - 12/11/2008 by Alana Semuels Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES On a recent morning, television journalist Heather Downie was carrying so many books, CDs and DVDs that it looked as if she'd need at least one shopping bag to get them to her car.

But she wasn't at Borders or Blockbuster. She was perusing the aisles of the Los Feliz branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, a place she's been visiting a lot more lately to save money.

Downie, 25, recently canceled her $16 monthly Netflix subscription and is trying to resist the temptation to buy books, instead checking out movies and books from the library.

"It's a great way to cut costs without having to sacrifice anything," she said.

Stores may be quiet these days, but libraries are hopping.

The Los Angeles Public Library is "experiencing record use," according to spokesman Peter Persic, with 12 percent more visitors during the 2008 fiscal year, which ended June 30, than the previous. Patrons checked out 17.2 million books, DVDs, CDs and other items during that period, a 10 percent increase. Some branches report even bigger spikes in use.

"Traditionally, in tough economic times, public libraries experience an upswing in use," Persic said.

At the San Francisco Public Library, about 12 percent more items were checked out in October than a year earlier. Chicago's public library system experienced a 35 percent increase in circulation. The New York Public Library saw 11 percent more print items checked out (a spokesman said that could partly be explained by extended hours).

"I haven't bought anything from Borders in quite awhile," said Christopher Lutz, a freelance makeup artist who was browsing the Los Feliz branch for DVDs and books. With the writers' strike and potential actors' strike, he said, he's being especially careful about where he spends his money.

Web sites such as PaperBackSwap.com that allow readers to exchange books for free also are becoming more popular. PaperBackSwap founder Richard Pickering said the site has seen a 25 percent increase in traffic in the past three months as people trade, rather than buy, books to save money.

As one of the few places with free Internet access and public computers, libraries also see an upswing in traffic from job-hunters when unemployment starts to rise, said Camila Alire, president elect of the American Library Association.

Last year, only 44 of the top 100 U.S. retailers accepted paper applications filled out in stores, she said, which means that applicants need the Internet.

Since they're not selling anything, libraries don't profit directly from the increased traffic. Like many things funded by taxpayer dollars, libraries take a hit when the economy does.

A public library in Georgia recently considered closing most of its branches due to funding issues, Alire said, and school libraries in Maryland have been hit particularly hard by budget cuts. The main library in Long Beach, Calif., was in danger of being closed down to save money, although the City Council voted down the proposal after widespread opposition.

Without a library, Crystal Fu wouldn't have anywhere to sit in comfy chairs and read newspapers and tabloid magazines that she says she "wouldn't be caught dead buying." Fu, a lawyer who recently returned from a 4-month sabbatical in India and is searching for a job in public interest law, said she loves reading but doesn't want to spend on books until she finds work.

"I've got to be a little frugal these days," she said.

The shift, from buying books to borrowing them, is hurting bookstores and publishing houses.

Barnes and Noble Inc. two weeks ago reported a third-quarter loss of $18.4 million, which Chief Executive Steve Riggio attributed to "a significant drop-off in customer traffic and consumer spending." In late October, Amazon.com Inc. cut its sales forecast for the holiday season.

"October was probably one of the toughest, slowest retail months that many of our members have had since their stores were in business," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association.

Scholastic Corp. reported sluggish sales in the last quarter, which President Richard Robinson blamed on a "challenging" market. Random House Inc. froze the pensions of current employees and did away with them for recent hires. Other publishers have laid off employees.

Still, bookstores and publishers alike should be thankful that there are still people such as Laura DePalma, a 27-year-old English teacher who was taking her students to downtown Los Angeles' Central Library on a recent Friday. She said she never checks out library books for herself; she only buys them, even though money is tight.

"I'm really broke. I can't go out on weekends anymore," said DePalma, who was holding "The Crying of Lot 49," which she'd bought that morning, between two sheets of paper so she wouldn't get fingerprints on it. She estimates she has five bookstores worth of books at home because she's been buying dozens a month since she was in high school.

Despite the economy, she said, this year isn't any different.

"My parents don't want to do gifts this year to save money," she said. "But all I want for Christmas is one book."