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Local used bookstore on the brink of extinction

Monday - 6/16/2014, 10:31am  ET

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Already Read Used Books co-owners Diane Wilson and Ken Mahnken with their two cats. (WTOP/Sophie Ho)
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Sophie Ho, special to wtop.com

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Already Read Used Books, a secondhand bookstore in Alexandria, is what co-owner Diane Wilson calls a quiet shop.

On a muggy Thursday afternoon, the bookshop, located at the intersection of Duke Street and Moncure Drive, is just that, save for the occasional telephone call and the jingling of the bell tied to the collar of GwenieB, one of the store's two cats. Around rush hour, the area outside is filled with the sounds of traffic, but inside the store the atmosphere remains hushed.

The shop is a small affair, a one-story rectangular building that is crammed to an almost bursting point with books around 25,000 secondhand books adorn the shelves, Wilson estimates. She and her husband, Ken Mahnken, say they know almost every book in the store.

Some books are falling apart at their seams, but the couple will offer to bind books for their customers, a service they started a few years back along with an online book service, to supplement their business.

But the eight-year-old bookstore is facing problems more troubling than the slow separation of bookbinding recent financial troubles, a declining stream of customers and now, the bookstore faces losing its lease.

"We've stayed here mainly because there isn't that many bookstores in the area," Wilson said. "People still like to come in and feel a book."

Though online giants like Amazon continue to eclipse the bookselling industry, a number of secondhand and niche book shops like Already Read Used Books remain in the area. The number of used bookstores in Alexandria has dwindled, but more than 30 secondhand bookstores remain in the D.C. area.

If they can't make their rent for the month, the couple will have to close shop and find a new location a difficult task considering the high rent in the area and the sheer feat of packing and transporting thousands of books.

But it would also be a blow to the local community.

"There are many reasons why businesses leave and you can only wish them the best and luck in their next endeavor," said John Long, president and CEO of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. "Businesses like (Already Read Used Books) have really been able to find their special niche in Alexandria."

Wilson and Mahnken have watched the children of their regular customers grow up, almost as quickly as the surrounding prices of the area began to mount.

"I'm an economist and I go to this store because I always want to find the best deal and I love books," said Bill McNaught, a longtime customer of the shop. "I can always come in here and have a nice chat with Diane and Ken."

On average, the couple says they sell about 1,000 books a month, enough to cover most expenses.

When business is bad, the store can sell about half as many books each month. This June, the couple hopes to sell about 800 books. When added to the revenue generated from the other services they provide, it might be enough to cover their rent.

Things started going south for Already Read Used Books about 18 months ago, Wilson and Mahnken estimate, around the time of sequestration and the government shut down.

"People weren't buying books because they had bills to pay," Mahnken said.

Increased traffic due to new development projects also clogged the streets in front of their store, making it difficult for customers to stop by during rush hour.

But running the business has never been about the money. Wilson, who comes from a teaching background, said that she and her husband just love books.

"The store's sort of like something we've watched grow and it is a child in its own way," Wilson said. "Sometimes it's a very naughty child, but we're very committed to it."

She says not many of their customers know of the store's situation. Outreach is hard, Wilson says it's only the two of them manning the shop. They hope to have a book sale this weekend to attract more customers, and are also in the process of setting up a crowdfunding campaign.

For the quiet store, they have a quiet goal as well no dreams of making millions or outpacing the other stores in the area.

"We hope to get people to support us," Wilson said. "We'd like to stay put for a while."

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