On a recent morning, television journalist Heather Downie was carrying so many books, CDs and DVDs that it looked as if she'd need a shopping bag to get them to her car.
But she wasn't at Borders or Blockbuster. She was perusing the aisles of the Los Feliz branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, a place she's been visiting a lot more lately to save money.
Downie, 25, recently canceled her $16 monthly Netflix subscription and is trying to resist the temptation to buy books, instead checking out movies and books from the library.
"It's a great way to cut costs without having to sacrifice anything," she said.
Stores may be quiet these days, but libraries are hopping as people look for ways to save money.
The Los Angeles Public Library is "experiencing record use," said spokesman Peter Persic, with 12% more visitors during fiscal 2008, which ended June 30, than the previous year. Patrons checked out 17.2 million books, DVDs, CDs and other items during that period, a 10% increase. Some branches report even bigger increases recently; in October, for example, the Palms branch saw a 27% increase.
"Traditionally, in tough economic times, public libraries experience an upswing in use," Persic said.
At the San Francisco Public Library, about 12% more items were checked out in October than a year earlier. Chicago's public library system experienced a 35% increase in circulation. The New York Public Library saw 11% more print items checked out (a spokesman said that could be partly explained by extended hours).
"I haven't bought anything from Borders in quite a while," said Christopher Lutz, a freelance makeup artist who was browsing the Los Feliz branch for DVDs and books. With the writers' strike and potential actors' strike, he said, he's being especially careful about where he spends his money.
Websites such as PaperBackSwap.com that enable readers to exchange books for free are also becoming more popular. PaperBackSwap founder Richard Pickering said the site had seen a 25% increase in traffic in the last three months as people trade, rather than buy, books in an effort to save money.
As one of the few places with free Internet access and public computers, libraries also see an upswing in traffic from job hunters when unemployment starts to rise, said Camila Alire, president-elect of the American Library Assn. Last year, only 44 of the top 100 U.S. retailers accepted paper applications filled out in stores, she said, which means that applicants need the Internet.
Since they're not selling anything, libraries don't profit directly from the increased traffic. Like many things funded by taxpayer dollars, libraries take a hit when the economy does.
A public library in Georgia recently considered closing most of its branches because of funding issues, Alire said, and school libraries in Maryland have been hit particularly hard by budget cuts. Closer to home, the main library in Long Beach was in danger of being closed to save money, although the City Council voted down the proposal after widespread opposition.
Without a library, Crystal Fu wouldn't have anywhere to sit in comfy chairs and read newspapers and tabloid magazines that she says she "wouldn't be caught dead buying."
Fu, a lawyer who recently returned from a four-month sabbatical in India and is searching for a job in public interest law, said she loved reading but didn't want to spend on books until she found work.
"I've got to be a little frugal these days," she said.
The shift from buying books to borrowing them is hurting bookstores and publishing houses.
Barnes & Noble Inc. last week reported a third-quarter loss of $18.4 million, which Chief Executive Steve Riggio attributed to "a significant drop-off in customer traffic and consumer spending." In late October, Amazon.com Inc. cut its sales forecast for the holiday season.
"October was probably one of the toughest, slowest retail months that many of our members have had since their stores were in business," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Assn.
Many bookstores won't let their bookworms wriggle away without a fight.
Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena is planning special holiday events and promotions this year to boost sales in a slow season, including a partnership with the Pasadena Symphony and holiday bingo, said Allison Hill, the shop's president.
Skylight Books on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz is publishing a more sophisticated holiday guide than it has any other year, said Kerry Slattery, general manager and co-owner. It's also returning unsold books to publishers to keep up cash flow, she said.
But that approach passes the pain on to publishers. Scholastic Corp. reported sluggish sales in the last quarter, which President Richard Robinson blamed on a "challenging" market. Random House Inc. froze the pensions of current employees and did away with them for recent hires. Other publishers have laid off employees.
Still, bookstores and publishers alike should be thankful that there are still people such as Laura DePalma, a 27-year-old English teacher who was taking her students to the Central Library on a recent Friday. She said she never checked out books from the library for herself; she only bought them, even though money was tight.
"I'm really broke. I can't go out on weekends anymore," said DePalma, who was holding "The Crying of Lot 49," which she'd bought that morning, between two sheets of paper so she wouldn't get fingerprints on it.
She estimates she has five bookstores' worth of books at home because she's been buying dozens a month since she was in high school.
Despite the economy, she said, this year isn't any different.
"My parents don't want to do gifts this year to save money," she said. "But all I want for Christmas is one book."
Penny Wise is a street-level
look at how Southern Californians are stretching their dollars in a sputtering economy.