Can a Mom-and-Pop Bookstore With a Simple Mission Survive in Dallas?

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A person looking to make gobs of money is not likely to first think of opening a bookstore, but several new indie stores in Dallas, such as The Wild Detectives and Deep Vellum Books, have been able to attract a healthy customer base. Meanwhile, Lucky Dog Books, a local used bookstore chain just a few streets over from Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff, has been on the brink of closing for several years. What's the critical difference?

Lucky Dog Books got its start in 1974 as Paperbacks Plus and owners John and Marquetta Tilton quickly expanded under the new name to the White Rock Lake area, where they have existed in various locations for 40 years. In 2012, real estate maneuvers generated enough capital for them to open a third store on Davis Street in Oak Cliff, just before the hipster boom really took off in the Bishop Arts District.

"We've always provided a service of making books as affordable as we could for people who don't have such extensive means to enjoy them," John Tilton says. "That's the whole reason for our trading system and being in used versus new." 

Most items in the store cost about $5, but customers who trade in books can easily work down the price to half that. The Tiltons view Lucky Dog as a neighborhood business, where people can see what everyone else in their community is reading and exchange books with them. They've done a lot of public outreach, including supplying most of the books to the carts in Klyde Warren Park.

Lucky Dog's biggest seller is paperback fiction, mainly mysteries and romances. "Once you go beyond that, it's a hodgepodge," Tilton says.  And they don't just sell books; they also have DVDs and vinyl records. "We have Christian readers, people who are into the sciences, people who come to see what new vinyl has shown up ... we say let one person's interests pay for another's."

But Lucky Dog's future in Oak Cliff has been in peril since it first opened. John Tilton says there was never much foot traffic on their stretch of the street. What's more, few people in the neighborhood bring in books to trade. The Tiltons are forced to pull from their East Dallas store to supply the Oak Cliff location with inventory, and even pay salaries.

A year after opening on Davis Street, in June 2014, the Tiltons took to Lucky Dog's website to ask that customers come in to buy books and gift certificates to help them stay alive. When the co-working space Common Desk made their landlord a much better offer on the location, the need for money to at least move became urgent. Otherwise they'd have to shut down. Again they asked the community for help, this time on Facebook. 

Their pleas helped the store to stay alive in the short term. Business did pick up, and they gathered enough money to pay the first and last month's rent on a new space on Jefferson Boulevard. "We did twice as much business in March 2015 as any other month in the three years we'd been there," Tilton says. Even once they started moving and the selection was increasingly slim, people came by to make purchases and help pack boxes.

But once the memory of that dire Facebook post faded, business slowed once more, and they found they had more setbacks than ever at their new location, which was itself a step up, since it offered the same amount of room but with lots more natural light.

For starters, the hasty move had left their Jefferson Boulevard location a mess. Neighboring businesses, accustomed to the storefront being vacant, often took up their parking spaces. The streets surrounding their store were laid out in such a way that it was often difficult to get to. There was not a prominent sign announcing their presence.

Tilton also feels that Davis Street has a sort of "cachet" with shoppers that Jefferson Boulevard may not have, although many hip local businesses — including Small Brewpub, Cultivar Coffee and Carnival Barker's ice cream — have recently become presences on the strip. 

But the biggest threat to Lucky Dog Books is the same one beleaguering all of the other bookstores in the world: People don't read the way they used to. When the Tiltons opened their first store in Mesquite, the only major at-home entertainment competition for books came from four lonely television stations in Dallas. Their stores thrived most in the mid-'90s.

Then came the internet.

Unlike a lot of booksellers, Tilton doesn't blame Amazon or millennials' poor reading habits for the decline in popularity of physical books. "They [millennials] get slammed a lot sometimes but they’re as smart and as literate as any before them and maybe more so," he says.

The problem isn't that people aren't reading, or that they're choosing to buy their books from online retailers, he says. It's that they're doing more of their reading online. And why wouldn't you, when a well curated selection of Facebook friends can mean a feed populated with plenty of interesting material.

Of course, the advent of increasingly attractive and smart TV options plays a role too. Tilton even argues that some shows, like The Sopranos, are a perfectly adequate substitute for reading. "It's as engaging as a book can be," he says. "If you’re a much more visual person and you don't find the right book to get you started down book lane, then you might never experience the pleasure of a good book."

The main way that the other successful stores in Dallas have overcome these obstacles is by offering a wealth of goods and services beyond books. Both The Wild Detectives and Deep Vellum serve alcohol and coffee, host music, plays and just about any other type of cultural event that can take place in a small space.

Lucky Dog occasionally hosts poetry groups that meet a couple of times a month, but Tilton admits they've struggled to market themselves. "We’re not really promotional people," he says. 

It is disheartening to think that a neighborhood like North Oak Cliff, which has grown on the basis of its artistic reputation, may not be able to support a business like Lucky Dog, which is only interested in one simple pursuit: providing a place for people to inexpensively exchange books with one another. 

But that could be the case, since the store is once again at a make or break point. The Tiltons recently sold their East Dallas store, which they are expecting to move, but in the interim the Jefferson Boulevard store will be without the help it has received from its sister location. "We must increase the level of our daily sales if we are to ever become truly viable here in Oak Cliff," read a Facebook post a few weeks ago.

Tilton knows there is a real possibility the store will close but he's also hopeful something may change in the final hour. After that recent Facebook post, Lucky Dog was contacted by a woman who's interested in selling her artwork in the store, and would bring food and beverages to sell as a bonus.

Perhaps this is a step toward providing the additional points of interest necessary to thrive as a bookstore today. "We'll do what we can until we can't do anything else," Tilton says. "I’m always hopeful we’ll come across the right thing to get us over the hump."

But the best thing for Lucky Dog would be a resurgence in interest in books as physical objects, along the lines of what has happened with vinyl records in the last few years.

"Part of the vinyl revolution is that you could have all this stuff in your pocket, but if you looked around in your apartment you might not see much. There would be nothing to look at or mess with," Tilton says. "There's a certain part of the human psyche that likes to mess with physical objects and put them in order. We’re hoping that will spread to books and movies."

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