Readers and book lovers across the Region were saddened when The Remarkable Book Shop owner Ken VanderLugt announced he planned to close his nearly 40-year-old independent bookstore on May 22 so he can retire.

But it's hardly the last chapter for independent bookstores in Northwest Indiana.

Miles Books in Highland, the Cat's Tale in Schererville, O'Gara and Wilson Ltd. in Chesterton, Bookworm in Wanatah and Green Door Books in Hobart all give avid readers somewhere to browse the shelves and find their next literary fix.

"I was saddened that Remarkable Book Shop is closing," Miles Books owner Jim Roumbos said. "Everybody is entitled to retire, but it's sad that nobody stepped up wanting to learn the used book business."

The American Booksellers Association reports that the number of book stores in the United States has grown for nine straight years, and sales rose by 5 percent last year.

"More than 200 independent bookstores have opened over the past few years," Roumbos said. "A couple of years back, everyone thought reading electronically would be the next big trend. But ebook and Kindle sales have stabilized, and new book sales are flat. It's used book sales that are growing."

In an age of smartphones, tablets, and constant social media alerts, people still appreciate sitting down with a good book.

"Some people like the smell of old leather, the tactile experience," he said. "No one's collecting ebooks and there's no ebook first edition of Charles Dickens."

Big chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble once threatened the existence of community book shops. But Borders is gone, and Barnes & Noble is barely limping along. Most of the competition is now online, but used booksellers can themselves reach a wider audience by selling through Amazon, Alibris, Abebooks and other sites.

"We have to work harder at what we do," Roumbos said. "I have to become sharper and sharper with what I know, so I can figure out where to find a book a customer wants as books become scarcer and scarcer. People have more and more choices. Thankfully, we have a core base of customers who like your store and know that if they don't choose to shop in a local independent bookstore, their choice will ultimately not be as broad."

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Roumbos said he was long motivated to keep his book store at  2819 Jewett Ave. in downtown Highland going because of his love of books, but is now driven more by the relationships he's formed with customers.

"Such smart people come in here," he said. "If you just open up your ears, you can get a college education."

Mary Freeman has run The Cat's Tale used book store at 1114 U.S. 30 Ste. C in Schererville so long she's watched many of her customers grow up. She makes a point of stocking all the books on the summer reading lists of local middle and high schools and has seen parents bring in young students who eventually grow into teens and drive there on their own.

"I feel a very strong connection to my customers and the towns," she said. "It gives you a sense of community and continuity."

Freeman dreamed of running her own book store all her life.

"I've got a lot of emotions and money and feelings invested in this place," she said. "I read five or six books a week, even when my children were younger. Television wasn't all that great at the time, and books are my television. This place just reflects my love for books and cats. People work to make a living, but this is not a job. I just love it."

Business is up and down, but a Cat's Tale has regular customers and sometimes sees people pop in and buy 30 science fiction paperbacks.

"There's a personal touch to the bookselling," she said. "I have a wide knowledge of books, and people like to come in, sit down and enjoy talking to me about books. We get to know each other. A couple of years ago, I lost my husband and there was a great outpouring from my clients."

Freeman has a niche, since she's able to procure rare and out-of-print books people can struggle to find on sites like Amazon. She's also benefited from the popularity of used books.

"The price of new books keeps going up and up," she said. "If you want the latest Clive Cussler, it's $30, plus shipping and handling. People are buying used."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.