John Evans, who opened Diesel bookstore in Malibu in 2004, said indies can also be undercut by shops -- "design shops and clothing shops and lampshade shops" -- that sell a few books because of the new ease of computerized ordering.
Skylight co-owner Kerry Slattery says the difference is often made by location, especially foot traffic, and being attentive to the needs of the community. Business experience doesn't hurt, she said.
"When we opened 10 years ago, bookstores were closing left and right. People said, 'You're crazy to open a bookstore.' We have an amazing location, but we kept everything very lean" in both stock and staff. Skylight also started author events within weeks after opening. The stores that survived, she said, had to be tighter and more savvy to both business and their customers.
"I think there's probably an optimal time in there somewhere," said Book Soup's Goldman, "when you have sufficient support to sustain you, but you're not coming in late and saddled with a steep lease. Bookstores tend to open more toward the tail end of the business ecology of a neighborhood -- it's difficult to be a pioneer. It's probably easier for a restaurant."
Despite his wariness about the market, Dutton called the opening of a new bookstore "like seeing the buds on a tree -- it's the most hopeful sign of spring."