The Last of the Bookstores

Michael’s Used Books is a happy holdout in a time when the old breed is dying

The publishing industry is flat—and in some cases, flatlining. Chain stores, and e-books are conspiring to kill each and every used-book store. Add the struggling local economy to the mix and it’s no surprise that “For Lease” signs decorate dark windows in strip malls throughout the Valley. So why is Michael Clark, owner of Michael’s Used Books (3430 E. Tropicana Ave. Suite 9), smiling? Because business is booming.

“When the economy got bad, our business got better,” says Clark, a former journalist. “As the economy has gotten worse, our business keeps growing.”

In 2009, says Clark, business was up 22 percent from the previous year. And the store sold more than 1,000 items in both January and February of this year, he says, noting that it averaged about 800 items a month in 2007.

Clark, who’s lived in Las Vegas since 1987, says several factors have contributed to the store’s success: It’s one of the few used-book stores in southeast Vegas; it also sells CDs, DVDs and vinyl; he’s selective about what he puts on his shelves (The Catcher in the Rye, yes—The South Beach Diet, no); and people are hunting for bargains.

“A woman came in the other day looking for a DVD,” he says. “I think it was Mean Girls. She’d seen it at Wal-Mart for $13 and found it here for $5. She got the DVD and three paperbacks for the same price it would’ve cost her for the DVD at Wal-Mart.”

Michael’s also offers a style of customer service you won’t find at big-box stores. Clark and his staff know many of their customers’ names and tastes.

“I’ve come in and they’ve said, ‘Hey, Lenny. We found that Mel Tormé CD you were looking for,’” says Lenny Perry, a customer since 2002. “They had it there waiting for me.”

Perry, a stagehand and photographer, says the store—which specializes in nonfiction and literature—is well-organized, has a rotating selection and the prices are right. First-time customer Marc Dombrosky, who teaches art at UNLV, calls it eclectic.

“I’m finding stuff that I wasn’t expecting to,” says Dombrosky, clutching a copy of Joy Harjo’s In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan, 1990), which he read from at a friend’s wedding a few years ago, but has had trouble finding since. “It’s exciting. That’s what I like about used-book stores: the element of surprise.”

A native of Wyoming, Clark opened Michael’s Used Books at the southwest corner of Tropicana and Pecos Road in 1995. He moved the store to the northeast corner, which features a Big Lots and Bank of America, in 2000.

Despite foreboding industry trends and the increasing popularity of online books, music and movies, he plans to hang around another 15 years.

“I’m 61 now,” says Clark, who has slicked-back brown hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache. “I’ve been doing this since I was 45. I’ll probably be doing it when I’m 71, maybe even 81. I can’t imagine not getting up in the morning and coming to the store.”

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