For Chris Eaton, opening Normal Books last month represented a personal “full circle” in the publishing industry.
Eaton, who owns and operates the bargain book store on Prince Avenue with his wife Mary, once ran Book Peddlers in the Beechwood Shopping Center (now known as Beechwood Promenade) and spent years building one of the largest bargain-book wholesalers in the world before his retirement last year.
“I went from buying these books in the beginning from wholesalers when I was in retail, then I went to selling to the wholesalers, and now I’m back to buying from wholesalers again,” said Eaton, who’s been in the business for some 30 years.
“It’s kind of funny. Three years ago, I was looking at about 70-80 million books a year. I once made a purchase of 600,000 on one title. Now I’m looking at buying threes and fives. It’s gone full circle. And I am having fun.”
Normal Books, located in the old Clarke Paint & Supply/Benjamin Moore paint store, carries about 5,000 titles, all of which are books that have been returned from retailers to wholesalers. And it seems as if the Eatons acquire more books every day.
“We’ve still got 200 boxes in the back room that we haven’t gone through yet,” he quipped, adding the store sells books for every taste, with a rather large children’s section.
Eaton adds that 90 percent of the books in the store are priced under $10, a majority of which are under $5.
“A regular book store, when they buy a book they have a right to return it and we buy those returns from the publisher,” said Eaton. “That allows us to sell a $27 book for like $6. It might have some shelf life on it, but most are in mint condition.”
With retailers closing left and right these days, it’s legitimate to question why one would open a bookstore. But U.S. News & World Report reported in May that the number of independent bookstores in the country increased from 2,311 in 2015 to 2,321, with sales increasing 5 percent from 2015 to 2016 and bumping up 2.5 percent in the first quarter of 2017.
“I worked with all the major publishers and there was a lot of concern about E-readers,” said Eaton. “Then stores started going out of business. But the trend in publishing is that the E-book has not consumed the publishing industry – it’s a part of it. That piece of the business has leveled off and we’ve seen a rise in printed matter. With all the doom and gloom in the industry, I think you’ve seen a comeback with bookstores.”
Both Eatons are quick to point out that Normal Books does not desire nor intend to compete with Avid Bookshop, which opened on Prince Avenue in 2011 and in November 2016 opened a second store in Five Points. In fact, shoppers looking for new titles at Normal Books are routinely directed to visit Avid, Mary Eaton says.
“If you’re coming in to look for a book you saw on a TV show this morning, we’re not that kind of bookstore,” said Eaton. “But if you’re a book lover and you want to come in and browse, we are that kind of bookstore.
“Avid is a fine bookstore and they are considered one of the top independent bookstores in the country. We don’t carry new releases. Avid does such a great job. We’re two different bookstores.”
“There are a lot of restaurants and they all sell food – just different food,” added Mary.
The Normaltown location was attractive due to the potential for walk-up business from nearby residents, and Eaton says it helps the store be a contributing part of the community. During the month of December, Normal Books partnered with Books For Keeps (a local initiative to make books available for school-age children throughout the year) to match, book for book, the number of books donated during the month.
“We have a lot of other plans to be more than a retailer,” he said.
The Eatons – who went on their first date in 1989 at the late-and-lamented Allen’s Hamburgers in Normaltown – have lived in Madison County since 1994 and say they’ve been happy every day to come to work.
“Books have been real good to us,” said Eaton. “We want to be part of this community. The area has been real receptive to us.”
“We’ve been very well received and it does make you feel good,” added Mary.
Normal Books, located at 1238 Prince Avenue, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Satuday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The store has a presence on Facebook, and the phone number is (706) 850-6225.