Longtime book seller P.K. Sindwani had to solicit the kindness of 50 customer-volunteers last year when he packed up his store and moved to a new location.
It was a survival move, with the industry transforming at an exasperating pace. Onetime powerhouse Borders was steaming toward bankruptcy, casual book buyers were flooding Amazon.com and e-books were quickly catching on.
But a willingness to experiment and branch out beyond books has enabled Sindwani to stay in the game. It's a strategy independent book sellers across the country are adopting out of necessity as new competitive threats emerge.
"This is a tough business; we're selling a product that's available in lots of other places," said Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association.
"But there is an enormous amount of creativity and entrepreneurship, in which people like P.K. are figuring out how to adapt and change and do things differently, and managing to make it work."
Consider Joseph Fox Bookshop, the oldest independent in Philadelphia's Center City. It has operated for 62 years, even as other landmark bookstores downtown closed in the past decade.
Owner Michael Fox supplements the store's income by striking deals with corporations for books to be distributed at their special events. He also is exclusive provider of books for author events at the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia and elsewhere.
"We're at the center of all the big book events in Philadelphia," said Fox, whose long, narrow store is impeccably stocked and merchandised like a cozy private library.
Sindwani said his renamed and relocated Towne Book Center & Cafe in Collegeville, Pa., is more a "department store of knowledge" than a showroom of books.
There are educational toys, greeting cards and impulse buys. Sindwani also has a coffee bar, for which he traveled to Seattle to learn all things barista, including how to make a latte.
Easily one-quarter of his store displays children's and youth books beneath a splashy jungle mural. The reason, he said, is that tech-savvy thirty- and forty-something parents believe their children do not focus as well on digital readers such as the iPad or Kindle Fire, where the Web and Facebook are fingertip distractions.
He wholesales to area school districts, hosts author readings, and has an employee whose sole job is devising programs such as a weekly children's writing workshop beginning in May, which will feature autographed copies of books by instructor and kids' book author Nancy Viau.
"Children's is keeping me in business," Sindwani said.