How do we survive?" is the despairing query of many independent bookstores.
Linden Grantham, sales manager for Random House who began his publishing career as a sales representative in Washington nine years ago, offers this advice. "Booksellers," he says, "have to emphasize those services which Crown isn't even interested in." "Those services" are, among others, breadth of inventory, ambience, well-informed clerical help, and special ordering -- bookstore services that are a measure of a cultured town.
The following are two examples of stores that have put Grantham's counsel into effect.
No general bookstore in the Washington area is more unlike Crown than Georgetown's Book Annex. Jim Tenney, its manager and resident guru, stocks bestsellers -- a selection of new, hardcover titles marked down 15 percent is displayed at the front of the store -- but the guts of the Book Annex are in the rear, past the record and camera departments, in aisles of popular and esoteric paperbacks shelved in categories from Ancient History to Women's Studies.
In 1978, the Book Annex, not counting its retail siblings, grossed more than $900,000, a remarkable achievement for what is known as a "backlist" bookstore. The laurels for its success belong mainly to the bookselling genius of of Jim Tenney.
Here is an example:
Flipping through last year's Yale University Press catalogue, Tenney spotted a listing for K. M. Murray's Caught in the Web of Words , a lively history of the founding of the Oxford English Dictionary. He said to himself, "This is one I want," and ordered 100 copies, a huge initial order for so specialized a title. (Since the store pays freight, the risk is that much greater.) When it was released to wide critical acclaim, the Book Annex was the only store in town able to keep it in stock. That is book buying and bookselling in the time-honored tradition.
Tenney boasts of importing lists of books from Mercier Press in Ireland and individual titles like Rebecca West's Grey Lamb, Black Falcon from Macmillan of London. "We are probably the only store in the country that has that book, and there are a thousand more like it here," he says.
"The industry's future is in publishers' backlists," Tenney avers, seemingly oblivious to industry trends.
"Our future is in cafe/bookstores," Bill Kramer smiles, and understandably so; his Kramerbooks & Afterwords combination of bookselling with the dispensing of food and drink is one of the country's great bookstore success stories.
K&A is not a bestseller store like Crown or a backlist store store like the Book Annex. Rather, it is a "trade paper" store, featuring mediumpriced ($2.95 to $8.95) paperbacks displayed face-up at eye level.
K&A's patrons are a bookseller's -- any retailer's -- dream: the moneyed young lawyers, journalists and bureaucrats of the "new" Washington. "They're feeding at the door," a competing bookseller says jealously, and almost quite literally. They come for the ambience, not the discount, for, excepting sales or select new titles, they pay full price.
What is so revolutionary about K&A is that Bill Kramer is selling more than books; he's selling entertainment. Books are not just for browsing or owning or learning; books are for fun .
One set of figures underscores the phenomenon of K&A, which, in its first year, joined the elite of milliondollar bookstores. In bookstore argot, a "turn" is the number of times an inventory turns over each year. A turn of three is considered a break-even point; a turn of six or more unusually profitable. In 1977, K&A turned 11 times; in 1978, more than 15 times. It is almost surely the nation's fastest turning bookstore.
This summer, Kramer will unveil a new K&A at 1919 Pennsylvania NW, sandwiched two blocks between both of Crown's downtown locations. When asked if such proximity will force him to discount more titles more often, Kramer wryly replies, "We'll do whatever we have to do to satisfy our clientele." R.S.