Independent bookstores add a new chapter

August 17, 2011

The brick-and-mortar bookstore is, like most of the economy, dead or close to it. See: Amazon, growth of. See: Borders, tanking of. Everybody knows this.

So here’s Eileen McGervey, owner of One More Page bookstore in Arlington, standing next to her gourmet chocolates and a nice little wine selection, right across from the food and travel section, and she . . . opened in January of this year?

“It’s going well, we’re in a great neighborhood,” she says. “Where else do you get to meet such fun people?”

In the District, Politics and Prose, which looked like it might go out of business last year when its longtime owners were retiring, is thriving under new management. In Richmond, the landmark Narnia bookstore underwent a similar transformation late last year, reborn as Bbgb under new owners Jill Stefanovich and Jenesse Evertson. In Nashville, author Ann Patchett and business partner Karen Hayes are gearing up to open Parnassus Books this fall. And in Hawthorne, N.J., a former Internet technology consultant named Bill Skees has been sitting behind the counter at Well Read, his very own store, for the past 10 months.

“From a financial perspective, it was a step down to open a bookstore, but it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” he says.

These quirky anecdotes are the underpinnings of one of the unlikeliest of business stories: The small, independently owned bookstore is staging a modest rebirth in the midst of a bone-killing economy and the exponential growth of online retailers and e-books.

The American Booksellers Association, the national trade organization for independently owned bookstores, counted a 7 percent growth last year and has gained 100 new members i n the past six months. The association now counts 1,830 member stores across the country, up by 400 since 2005, according to Meg Smith, the association’s spokeswoman. The new stores have opened in at least 35 states, from New York to California, an indication that store owners across the nation see an opportunity to find a concrete niche in the e-book world.

“The takeaway is that independent bookselling is still a desirable profession and it’s sustainable,” Smith says.

Smith says the growth appears to be due to a number of factors — the demise of large bookstores; a general social identification with locally owned businesses, an offshoot of the ‘go-local’ movement in restaurants and grocery stores; and a number of store owners who have identified a small but viable market in their communities.

The steady growth is surprising, as the number of independent stores had shrunk by as much as 30 percent in the early part of the decade, hit hard by the growth of big box stores and by online sellers such as Amazon, where the supply was almost limitless. E-readers, such as the Kindle and Nook, had further put a dent in brick-and-mortar businesses. Lastly, the recession of the past two years has cast a shadow over the entire retail market.

But, while Smith says that “no one knows if we’ve hit the bottom,” a small tribe of devoted book lovers with a business bent say that the economic setting has been right for small, highly personal ventures.

The lesson in the decline of big stores, these owners say, is not that no one wants to buy books. It’s that the big stores were too big. They had overreached and, in trying to be all things to all readers, had lost a sense of intimacy that books and reading seem to thrive on.

Alma Katsu got just that feeling when she stopped into McGervey’s store. An intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency for nearly three decades, she was a book lover who had just written her first novel, “The Taker.” That first day she stopped in, the pair made plans for a launch party (Sept. 8) to be held at the store and have since come up with more promotional plans for the book.

“Every time I go down there, it’s like meeting family, hanging out with people who like what I like,” Katsu says. “They even got me started drinking wine again!”

Most of the new independents are 1,500 to 3,000 square feet, as opposed to the 20,000-square-foot Borders model. They are intensely local, setting up partnerships with nearby schools, libraries and businesses. They tailor their 10,000 or so book inventories (a standard Barnes and Noble store has about 80,000) to their customers, many of whom aren’t coming in for the latest bestseller. And, as Skees points out, they have modest financial goals.

“One of my first advisers was going over my business plan and I could tell he was concerned,” says McGervey, who gave up her career as a marketing consultant to high-tech firms to open her store. “I finally said, ‘I know I’m not going to make any money,’ and he was very relieved, and said, ‘Oh, good, okay.’ ”

Hayes, working to get her and Patchett’s store opened in Nashville, is in final negotiations for a lease. After working at a publishing house and as a regional sales representative for more than two decades, she knows the business well — but still waited to open the venture until she had the financial ability to work one year without taking a paycheck. Patchett, whose books have sold millions of copies, is likewise not counting on the store for mortgage money.

“It’s so important to be able to put everything back into a small business in that first year,” Hayes says.

Perhaps the key characteristic these owners share is a beyond-business-hours fascination with their product.

McGervey loves mysteries and came to the business with a solid understanding of spreadsheets and accounting. She attended a weeklong seminar run by the ABA for prospective bookstore owners and noticed that stores that offered something more than books did better on the bottom line. So she added two of her favorite things — wine and chocolate — and now offers a couple of dozen wines, ranging from the $9.50 Tamas Pinot Grigio to the $24.29 Bouchaine Pinot Noir. McGervey also looked for the right location for more than 18 months, settling on a small street near a couple of restaurants and a large apartment building.

“A lot of times, residents will come in to pick up a bottle of wine, find one that they like and then come back in a couple of times a week for it,” she says. “Then they’ll come in for author events.”

Jenn Lawrence, a book blogger who lives in Sterling, had been asked by Borders to run a book club at a store in Vienna. It flopped, but McGervey saw her there and recruited her to run a once-a-month meeting at One More Page. Starting with eight members, the club now has about 15 regular attendees, Lawrence says.

“At Borders, there wasn’t a sign saying that we were having a meeting; the employees didn’t even know we were there,” Lawrence says. “Eileen’s store is just the opposite. She’s very supportive, the book club members get 20 percent off, she really markets it.”

In Maryland, Novel Places opened in Clarksburg in June. And last fall, Nina Embrey opened Booktopia Books and Gifts for Children in Bradley Shopping Center in Bethesda, a year after high rents ended her six-year run at a different location across town. She likes for her customers to address her as “Miss Nina,” hires American University students as most of her work force and offers $10 gift certificates to young readers who read — and report on — three books in galley editions. “I really just want us to be viewed as the neighborhood bookstore,” she says.

At Bbgb in Richmond, Stefanovich and Evertson inherited a 26-year-old children’s bookstore with a devoted clientele. They’re trying to build the store’s reputation with a new name and attitude. They’re hitting all the local schools’ book fairs and reading lists.

Stefanovich had been a stay-at-home mom since her twins were born seven years ago. She says she had been in their classrooms almost every day. “Now I pick them up from school four days a week, get them home and fed and to bed and then the laptop comes out. . . . It’s great, but I’d be lying if I said it was all easy and fun.”

Skees opened his stand-alone storefront in November, unhappy to discover the technicalities of zoning restrictions and code inspections after having gutted the premises (it had been a karate studio before standing empty for several years). It delayed his opening by more than a month, causing him to miss a town festival that he was counting on to help him launch.

He has one full-time employee and one part-time, his wife and teenage sons help out, and he’s there seven days a week. He acknowledges that “at times, it’s been a little overwhelming.”

But he was a lifelong sci-fi fan, loved books and had spent several years saving for the opportunity to open a store, all while developing business models. He says he’s not at what he initially projected — but it’s better than his worst-case scenario, too.

“If you can pay your bills and are happy doing what you’re doing, that’s the key,” he says. “It’s really pretty neat being surrounded by your passion.”

Fiction editor Ron Charles contributed to this report.

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