GRAND LAKE - Proprietor Avis Gray enjoys the moments when a child enters her bookstore, then seems to slowly "melt into a quieter, more introspective self. When kids look at these beautifully illustrated books, they become part of a magical world," she said.
She knows it's a privilege to own a stable bookstore business in the age of the Kindle, the Nook, iPad and goliath online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
But Gray hangs onto the simplistic charm of a tactile world of books and discovery.
Her tiny store sits at the end of Grand Avenue, its shelves loaded with more than 2,000 new and used books, plus just a few interesting retail items to keep visitors browsing.
It's a "dubious honor" owning the only bookstore in Grand County solely dedicated to books, she said.
To help create a loyal customer base and direct sales-tax dollars to where they may make a difference locally, Gray has joined a conglomeration of independent bookstore owners across the country, providing a web-based distribution center for consumers. A customer orders a book, and it is shipped from the nearest independent bookstore to that customer. According to Gray, the website offers more than 1 million book titles, and sales taxes are paid to benefit the regions from where books are provided - unlike the Amazons of the world, which somehow manage to skirt sales taxes in several states.
To Gray's Cascades Bookshop, an online purchase may mean only 8 percent profit.
"That's it. And that's OK," Gray said. "Because at least we know our customers are paying sales tax to the state of Colorado."
Meanwhile her bookshop offers perks you can't get online.
Gray's store often hosts visiting authors and book-signing events, lively book clubs and is a place where patrons take part in an exchange of ideas over local issues. Sometimes her store feels like a "mini town hall," she said.
"People are real supportive. Because they want to keep a bookstore in town for themselves and for their kids."
Just last summer, Gray's bookstore was mentioned on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" to a national audience. The show, titled "How to make it as an independent bookseller," featured Denver's Tattered Cover owner and founder Joyce Meskis, who talked about how she recently had gone into a bookshop in Grand Lake.
Even though the shop was "tiny," Meskis said, it had sections for children, bestsellers and a "very fine selection of local interest books.
"Size does not necessarily mean that you can't provide wonderful service," Meskis said.
Meskis went on to talk about how independent bookstore owners "can't stand in the way of the freight train of change," but embrace the e-readers and online sales as part of their businesses to support the sale of traditional books.
"The world of books: Have they taken a backseat, or were they never that important to begin with?" Gray pondered.
Bits, bytes and books
At the Grand County Library District, e-book checkouts are growing in popularity. From 2011 to 2012, interest in e-books spiked by 121 percent, and e-books have become the fastest growing segment of the library's circulation.
"It's not a bad thing. It's a thing," said the district's Executive Director Mary Ann Hanson-Wilcox, who herself owns an e-reader. All the digital gadgets may be making reading more accessible, she said.
"I think more people are reading."
Checkouts of all other materials at the libraries increased by an average 11 percent. Of the library's 96,000 total circulation of materials, however, neither books nor e-books - but videos - are by far the most popular items to be checked out.
E-books may have their place for convenience sake, such as for the frequent traveler, Gray said. But she would rather pack physical books for a trip and leave them as a gift at her destination.
"If I want to get out of that (digital) world, I go into a more contemplative world (with physical books)," Grey said. "Am I old-fashioned? Probably."
Others share her sentiment.
"Why would you rather read a book than be wired to a Nook?" Gray asked her customers over the summer. They wrote answers on pages provided in a three-ring binder. Grey plans to award the person with the best answer.
One young boy illustrated his answer with a picture of kayaking in Prince William Sound, traversing the Central American jungle, backpacking in Indian Peaks Wilderness; "These are the places you can't charge a Nook," he wrote.
Many wrote about the tactile qualities of books - their smell, their weight, and the ability to loan them to friends, to write inside them, and to hold hard-bound editions cracked and worn.
"Books create a sense of nostalgia that one does not get with e-books," another wrote. For some, there's pride in displaying a bookshelf of one's favorites.
And yet another person wrote about bookstores like Gray's: "Physical bookstores are havens for serendipitous encounters. Looking for one thing, our browsing allows us to see the bigger world in new ways and from new angles. It's more than a place for imagination; bookstores are inter-dimensional spaces."
In Gray's store is a book by an author with the pseudonym "Ann Droyd" called "Goodnight iPad," a parody on the popular children's book "Goodnight Moon."
The story is about becoming unplugged.
"Goodnight iPad," it reads. "Goodnight Nooks and digital books. Goodnight Eminem. Goodnight Facebook friend. Goodnight LOLs. Goodnight MP3s. Goodnight LCD Wi-Fi HDTV....Goodnight buzzing. Goodnight Beeps. Goodnight everybody who should be asleep...Goodnight MacBook Air. Goodnight gadgets everywhere."
The book ends with the little old-lady bunny reading the book "Goodnight Moon" by flashlight to her resident cat.