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Kathy and Tom Ross bought Half-Price Books of the Ozarks in 2002 and believe, despite the growing number of e-book readers, that bookstores will remain viable.
Kathy and Tom Ross bought Half-Price Books of the Ozarks in 2002 and believe, despite the growing number of e-book readers, that bookstores will remain viable.

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Despite the growing number of readers receiving books electronically, Kathy and Tom Ross believe traditional bookstores will maintain a presence.  

“I think it will be a long time before it gets to where we don’t have a bookstore. There are too many people who like the feel of the book in their hands,” says Kathy Ross, who with husband Tom, owns Springfield’s Half-Price Books of the Ozarks Inc.

The 25-year-old store spans four storefronts – 4,000 square feet in all – and seems to wind forever inside, holding 100,000 books on its shelves. The Rosses bought the store in 2002 from Frank and Mary Joe Clouse after Kathy had worked there for four years.

“I was up here all the time. Frank and Tom and I had known each other,” Ross says. “For Tom, it’s a business; for me, it’s my love. It’s my candy store.”

It only looks disorganized
After buying the book store, an early priority was organizing its tens of thousands of titles.

“There were no computers. Everything was done by hand,” Tom Ross says. “A little while into it, we bought one computer to add the Internet and started selling a few books on the Internet. We went from there and added a couple more computers.”

The Rosses quickly added a used bookstore software program. UBIC, or Used Bookstore Inventory Control, is manufactured and sold by Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Abracadabra Data Systems.

“That helped us a lot to get control of things,” Tom Ross says, adding the software tracks customers’ reading and buying habits to help the Rosses shop for books that fit their customers’ interests.

Additionally, a book at the front of the store, called “If You Like,” lists popular authors and their writing-style counterparts who customers also might like.

“That’s something you won’t get at major stores,” Kathy Ross says.

The next chapter
Shortly after making the purchase, the Rosses added new book sales, something they say is key to the future because it defends against giant retailers such as Walmart, Target and Kmart.

“We give 20 percent off our new books. Plus, they can trade it in,” she says. “The economy has really affected us. They just don’t have the money to spend. The trading helps. They can trade their books in and have money to spend.”

At 80 percent, used books are the vast majority of inventory, but Kathy Ross says the percentage of new books available will grow.

Amanda Nicholson, of Ozark, says she frequents Half-Price Books twice a week for its selection and prices.

“They have a lot of new books that are cheaper than brand new. I trade a lot of books,” Nicholson says.

Tom Ross declined to disclose the store’s 2009 revenue but says sales did not fall as much as the national average.

According to Publishers Weekly, bookstore sales for the first half of 2010 were down 0.5 percent, to $7.42 billion, compared to the first half of 2009. Compared to the first half of 2008, bookstore sales in the first six months of 2010 were down 3.6 percent.

The Rosses say key to competing with e-reader services is staying ahead of trends among young readers and honing existing customer service practices. Some of the most popular books in the store’s inventory target young readers, a trend mirrored by major authors’ work.

“The young-adult books are just flying off the shelf. My adults are reading young-adult series,” Kathy Ross says, adding that bestselling authors John Grisham, Kathy Reichs and James Patterson all have written young adult books.  

Many historical pieces also line the shelves at Half Price Books.

The Rosses consider first-edition printings of “The Wizard of Oz” and books written during the 1700s among the unique titles in the store.

Fine-tuning the stores’ customer service is a priority.

Those customer service efforts helped the store earn the 2010 Bookseller of the Year at the Romantic Times Book Reviews 27th annual Booklovers Convention in Columbus, Ohio. The international award is given to one bookseller annually.

Last week, a customer in Grand Prairie, Texas, called looking for a book of poetry, but the only description given was that it was blue with a gold star on the cover. Ross quickly went to work to find the book for the customer in the store and online.

“It’s not hard, but it sure is busy. That’s the way we prefer it,” Tom Ross says.[[In-content Ad]]

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