York's bookstores evolve as buyers move online

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Gloria and Terry Irvin have been the owners of TG Books for 16 years.

Fuzzy, oversize spiders hang from the ceilings of the York Emporium as an original Space Invaders arcade machine whirs and beeps. Around a corner, a lifelike skeletal bird in a rusty cage with a sign that reads "Please: Do not feed the imp" greets patrons who dare to come close. 

The store, at 343 W. Market St. in York City, is full of oddities and hidden treasures but most importantly, books — and lots of them.

"You don't see bookstores like this everywhere," said York Emporium owner Jim Lewin.

As online shopping gains relevance in the daily lives of millions of people, in turn, it has changed the landscape of bookstores both locally and corporately owned.

The retail chain Borders went out of business in 2011, shuttering more than 400 stores, including one in Springettsbury Township. More than 11,000 employees lost their jobs, according to National Public Radio. 

And as thousands of mom and pop shops feel the wrath of online shopping with a consumer base turning digital, local bookstores and comic shops feel the pressure too.

For the few bookstores left in York County, however, shop owners are finding their own niche of customers who keep coming back for more.

Owner of the York Emporium, Jim Lewin, poses for a photo against a shelf of books, on June 3, 2019.

Lewin said he has seen "significant" growth since he and his wife bought the store in 2005. With dozens of new books coming in weekly, customers return, eager to search for their next read. 

"There's something you lose when you're shopping online," Lewin said. 

Though shopping carts and bookcases filled with books are the main attraction for the York Emporium, weekly open-mic jam sessions and a yearly sci-fi convention have created a small community of locals consistently coming back.

Lewin said these events are key to the York Emporium's business.

For Brian Waltersdorff, the owner of Comic Store West, 2111 Industrial Highway, weekly events are an important aspect of his store that bring in a large number of customers every day.

"The online stuff does really scare me," Waltersdorff said. "I couldn't see how just a plain comic book store could do well today."

A stack of comics sit at the York Emporium.

In addition to selling comic books and graphic novels, Comic Store West offers a large selection of table-top board games and cards, such as Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering. 

Despite comic sales being down at his store, Waltersdorff said games are on the rise as more people come to his store to purchase accessories, board games and manuals. 

"Having the diversity that we have, it really helps us," he said. 

Though table-top games provide a safety net for the store, Waltersdorff said it's hard to ignore the dip in comic sales — the combination of increasing digital readers and cheaper prices at online retailers is difficult to compete with.

Gloria and Terry Irvin, the owners of TG Books, at 2107 Industrial Highway, have also felt a ripple of changes that affect their store as the book industry has grown and evolved.

During the Kindle phase, customers they were once seeing regularly stopped coming into the store. Months later, those same customers returned, admitting they missed the feel of holding a physical book, Gloria Irvin said.

Though the store is successfully navigating e-readers, Amazon's arrival was not as kind. 

"I understand the convenience, I'm guilty myself," Gloria Irvin said. "But unless you know exactly what you want to read, how can you buy it online? It's too cold and impersonal."

TG Books sells both new and old books, featuring many local authors in their store.

At TG Books, customers who bring in books can get a store credit to use toward their next purchase. The computer system also keeps track of each customer's purchases to prevent people from buying the same book twice.

This business model has served the Irvins well.

"Terry just spent 15 minutes talking about westerns with a customer — you don't get that at Walmart, you won't get that anywhere else," Gloria Irvin said. "But a small, local business will get to know the people."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.