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Anthony Artale, Fall 2011, Past Students

Finding the last of the bookstores

By Anthony Artale

Maxwell’s House of Books is one of the few remaining small bookstores in San Diego           

The main street in downtown La Mesa is lined with tiny shops and restaurants. Most are small antiques stores, run by retirees selling porcelain plates and poorly restored furniture. Among these stores is a small business that has been slowly dwindling since the advent of the Internet.

Maxwell’s House of Books is barely the size of a one-bedroom apartment. Homemade shelves go all the way to the ceiling and are packed end to end with everything from military history to science fiction. The store might not be large, but more than 30,000 books cover the walls and rest on oddly-placed tables to accommodate the overflow. For storeowner Craig Maxwell, the business is just as much a lifestyle as it work.

“I like to call myself a book enthusiast, but if you ask my wife she says I’m a book fanatic,” Maxwell said. “I’ve always been an avid reader, even on my days off I go hunting for books.”

outside Maxwell's House of Books

Maxwell's House of Books is located on La Mesa Boulevard.

The book business has been part of his family for generations. Maxwell’s grandfather founded Wahrenbrock’s Bookstore in Downtown. The store operated for 75 years as one of the biggest bookstores in San Diego until it closed in early 2010. Maxwell has worked in different boo stores for the past 30 years, and opened Maxwell’s House of Books in 2002.

            The Internet is a Harsh Mistress for Small Business Owners

Wahrenbrock’s is one of many bookstores that fell victim in the downfall of the book industry. Even the chain bookstore Borders wasn’t able to stay afloat, closing its doors last February. According to Maxwell the Internet has been the single reason for the loss of the bookstores.

“We have a fair number of repeat customers in the store, but that is one of the things that has changed a lot in the business,” Maxwell said. “With the advent of e-sales, all that stopped. People that were big readers started coming in less and less, and eventually stopped coming in at all.”

While e-sales may have hurt Maxwell’s business, digital technology has also become a valuable tool. A large percentage of his sales come through online orders, ranging from shipments to Alabama all the way to Albania.

History books on shelves

Books fill nearly every inch of Maxwell's store.

Another part of Maxwell’s business is buying used books from customers. But since the recession began in 2008, he has been trying to make exchanges for store credit instead of trading for cash. For customer Linda Zane, who showed up with a box full of old hard covers, the trade is a great deal.

“I’d rather come here and trade my old books, and spend some time talking to Craig and his wife about books then go to some place like Barnes and Nobles and deal with their staff,” Zane said.

While Maxwell has reluctantly embraced the Internet, referring to it as “using the poison that is killing him,” one area of the new book business that Maxwell has been unable to accept is the introduction of e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook.

“E-readers are not books, just because something is full of words doesn’t make it a book, and what are people going to think when they go to your house and you don’t have any books?” Maxwell said.

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