Corporate Booksellers Force out Independents
It will seem quaint, I'm sure, in 2000-whatever when I tell my grandchildren that there was a time when people flocked to bookstores -- intimate places that sold ageless literature. And they will look at me with incredulous eyes: "You mean, they didn't have computers when you were a kid?" they'll ask. And I will assure them that back in the dawn of the computer age, reading was a tactile, and often visceral experience, and that bookstores were like temples where the quiet hum of concentration was interrupted only by the intermittent sighs of people in the process of reading the words of Joyce, Bronte, Melville. Where an hour spent browsing the shelves was like devouring a five-course meal for the soul.And I will try to explain that it wasn't only computers that snuffed out these sacred places; there was something more complicated and insidious at work. A mentality of mediocrity swept the land so that everywhere one went things were the same in every shopping center, where once there had been an array of choices, now there were the same four or five stores, the leading purveyors who had all but gobbled up their competition. Bookstores were no longer about words or books, they became bottom-line generators -- three- or four-story monstrosities -- some as large as malls with escalators that whooshed patrons to the Self-Help or Home Improvement section.The oddest thing about these megabookstores was nobody inside of them seemed at all interested in reading books. They came to sit in oversized chairs and skim the pages of Elle, Time and Vogue (American and British versions) and to sip $4 coffee (Starbucks and a croissant were included in this late '90s bookstore experience). And, if you had the temerity to ask where you might find any of the works of Mark Twain, perhaps, your query nine times out of 10 would be greeted by the dull stare of a clerk, who, exhibiting all the intelligence of a dead fish, might venture: "Twain...What has he written recently?"Lest you think we're indulging in hyperbole regarding the future prospects of the independent bookstore, witness the drama on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where two of the most wonderful independents in Manhattan have either already expired or are in their death throes. An onslaught of megabookstore openings -- Barnes & Noble opened a superstore on 82nd and Broadway in 1993 and another store at Lincoln Center last year -- was cited as the culprit. Endicott Booksellers, located a few blocks east at 82nd Street and Columbus Avenue, is long gone. Shakespeare & Company Booksellers, at its 81st and Broadway location for 15 years, will be going out of business at the end of this month after much struggle. Initially, loyal customers responded to the bad news with a frenzy of book-buying but, as media coverage dried up, so did sales. Barnes & Noble's discounts have lured even the most provincial customers away. Shakespeare & Co. owner Steve Kurland says that even the fierce loyalty of his few remaining customers was not enough to sustain the business at that location.It's ironic that the force behind the book-reading trend, corporate booksellers, is the same force driving out the independent bookstores. Yes, the Orwellian mainstreaming has begun -- even with something as introspective and personal as expanding the mind through reading. The gradual disappearance of independent bookstores is even more tragic when viewed as a general reflection of the state of America's artistic and intellectual culture. Many independent bookstore owners got into the business because they loved the written word and saw their businesses as a way to cultivate a sense of community. A certain camaraderie exists in this atmosphere. When I worked at Endicott Booksellers, both the book buyer and the store manager would rush about on the verge of hysteria and jubilation as they prepared for an evening with Joyce Carole Oates or Philip Roth. Bookshelves would be moved aside to make room for folding chairs set up in the back of the store to accommodate the unpublished (and published) writers, fans. Devoted Endicottians would crowd into the small space to sip white wine and listen to the authors read, and it seemed the air crackled with the intensity of their words. These intimate spaces are disappearing, in part, because bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Border Books provide warehouse-size spaces to accommodate the volumes of books they buy by the yard, as if they were so many bricks. These stores also host readings geared toward books that raise questions like: "When's the movie?" "And, will it star Tom Cruise?"Suburban independents also have had their share of struggles. Independent bookstore owners who haven't surrendered say the key to survival is specializing; specific topics of interest and eclectic merchandise prevent small bookstores from drowning in the wake of their monolithic competitors, who, through their tremendous buying power, are able to undercut the indies at the cash register. Bookstore owners all over Westchester and Fairfield counties have found that sales of greeting cards, CDs, stationary, office supplies and even toys are what keeps their heads above water. Some independent bookstores have brought in local crafts and restaurant-like concessions to entice customers. Still, however glorious their victory, survivors are becoming few and far between."I remember the old-time booksellers," says Robert Regan, a bookseller for eight years at Womrath Books in Bronxville, N.Y. "It's hard to stay afloat these days."The Mt. Kisco Book Co. in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., opened five months ago, after its predecessor, Fox & Sutherland -- a popular book/department store among residents -- went out of business. "We are not exclusively a book store," explains Irwin Hersch, owner of Mt. Kisco Books. "We sell CDs, tapes and cards. We are actually a small department store." Hersch owned Grand Central Books in Grand Central Station in Manhattan, until he was squeezed out by Barnes & Noble. Hirsch is also a part-owner of Coliseum Books in Manhattan, one of the last independent bookstores in the area. "In New York City, we're surrounded by Barnes & Nobles," he says. "You lose 5 percent here and 3 percent there, each time another one of their stores opens." Mt. Kisco Book Co., Hersh insists, is doing quite well, because the merchandise he offers is not in direct competition with that offered by other bookstores."I think there might be a slight swing back to the smaller business," he says. "The other stores are big and impersonal. The employees don't make money there and so they are not as knowledgeable. This bookstore focuses on service." In keeping with the times, Hersch offers a search service for out-of-print books on the Internet. He says Barnes & Noble makes a great deal of its profit by advertising itself as a discount bookstore, which is not an entirely accurate depiction. It is accurate enough, however, to prompt Hersch to offer a discount on The New York Times bestsellers. "That's how [chain bookstores] first started annihilating the smaller bookstores," he says. "The independent bookstores are not going to get the people who want to save a buck."Pymander Books, in Westport, Conn., specializes in books on holistic health and spiritual healing, the rising popularity of which have allowed the store to stay in business. The store sells merchandise to complement the written material: incense, candles, jewelry and essential herbal oils. Store owner Nancy Ivison doesn't solely blame the superstores for the sales decline her store has recently experienced. "It's not just Barnes & Noble," she says. "It's the economy. And so many things we have concentrated on have gone mainline. Healing and alternative health were our province. Now it has been mainstreamed. We were 'it' in holistic and homeopathic and other alternative medicine, and now we're not. Those things are now widely accessible to a Barnes & Noble."In addition to extensive magazine selections and enticing discounts, corporate booksellers have one enormous factor in their favor: corporate-friendly book publishers. Publishers offer bulk-packages for large stores, leaving independents to contend with escalating book prices. Case in point: The Remarkable Bookshop, in Westport, Conn., used to be a vision of delightful individuality in a strip of town now characterized by J. Crew, The Gap and their stylishly nondescript customers. However, after 32 years in its bright-pink shingled house, the bookstore took an irreversible hit from the nearby Barnes & Noble competition. "Two years ago, Barnes & Noble opened on Post Road about a mile and a half away," former owner Sidney Kramer says. "We lost 15 to 20 percent of our customers. The rest of our people were entirely loyal, but we decided we lost enough volume and could no longer maintain it. It's happening all over the world." Kramer has remained in the book business as an attorney who specializes in handling writers and literary agents."The publishers are really to blame," he adds. "They sell books in great volume to the big book stores and offer greater discounts which independent bookstores cannot afford."Rachel Gorney, a publicity assistant at Harper Collins, agrees part of the struggle independent bookstores must endure has to do with publishing companies discounting books in volume. But, she explains, it really doesn't have to do with blame. "The real problem is happening all over the nation," she says. "It's like when little local markets don't do well when a Food Emporium moves in."However, Simon & Schuster's Andrew Giangola, vice president of corporate communications, disputes Kramer's statement. "Simon & Schuster sells trade books to all retailers at a flat discount," he says. "The discounts available to retailers are the same, regardless of volume." Panacea Books, in Port Chester, N.Y., has managed to find its niche in this multicultural community, by offering many bi-lingual titles and selling crafts from local artists. Owner Ann Spaeth, whose store is next to a pocket park on Main Street where she regularly organizes poetry readings and lectures, says she opened Panacea after studying the trends of Barnes & Noble and Border Books. "I have been a community center since the beginning," she says. "It is an integral part of the community. My business plans included Barnes & Noble."Spaeth says since 50 percent of the community speaks Spanish, she emphasizes multiculturalism and also focuses on all aspects of healing. "Whether it's the macro-healing of a community, or individual self-help," she says. The store is named after the Greek goddess of healing. The name translates to this meaning in both Spanish and English. "Places like Barnes & Noble feature African-American authors during African-American months," she continues. "Every day is African-American month here and Latino-American and Asian-American. "I am an independent bookstore interested in independent thought and independent publishers. We celebrate writers who don't have access. It's too homogenized in the superstores." Spaeth says business has improved each year. "We have been in business two years and our profits have doubled," she adds.Warren Cassell, owner of the venerable Just Books in Greenwich, Conn., says his 60-year-old business is small in terms of square footage, but it covers a lot of territory. "We are a very tiny store, but we do more per square foot than any other store in the country," he boasts. Cassell's business is primarily through phone sales and special services. He publishes a literary newsletter with a circulation of about 20,000 and he rents out large conference rooms in nearby hotels where he sponsors "Meet the Author Breakfasts." His speakers have included Barbara Bush and Margaret Thatcher. He plans for Patty Hearst to speak in the fall. "We have very little stock," he says. "We are service-oriented, we conduct out-of-print searches for our customers and much of our business is done via mail." One of the reasons Just Books has been in Greenwich for so long and has survived changing trends is because of its specialized work. If Cassell's bookstore was a traditional one, it would likely have been out of business by now. Lighthouse Books in Rye, N.Y., is a traditional independent bookstore, and as such seems to be more vulnerable to the big competition. Store owner Patrick Corcoran has been in business for 13 years. He recently moved his store from one side of Rye's main shopping district to the other when, he says, his landlord raised the rent so high he was forced out. He says the landlord wanted to lease to a franchise record store. "I was across the street for 10 years, but Sam Goody wanted me out. They think this is Rodeo Drive," quips Corcoran. He mostly carries bestseller hardcovers and mass market books and a few classics, as well as study guides. "I feel the brunt of the competition at the holidays," he says."They [commercial stores] have more square footage, more inventory and better margins. Basically, since the '80s business has dropped off a lot." Corcoran says providing a service and appealing to the tastes of the community keeps him in business. "I am nice to my customers and I go out of my way for them," he says. I compete through service." One traditional independently-owned bookstore which seems to be enduring is Bookworm, Inc. in Katonah, N.Y. Owner Margaret H. Broudy says business is slowly improving since the economic decline she experienced in the early '90s, and she partially attributes the improvement to the end of a recession in upper Westchester. One of the other reasons she may be surviving is that the closest commercial bookstore to her is a good 20 miles away in Hartsdale, N.Y. "I have no real definitive answer as to whether sales have gone down since the increase in openings of commercial bookstores," she says. "I only have my own history. When the recession finally came to upper Westchester a few years ago, everyone got hit real hard. For the three-year period ending in 1995 we noticed a decline, but last December my business picked up and every month thereafter it has slightly increased." Broudy admits independent bookstores are an endangered species. "All you can hope for is a good location and a loyal community," she adds.Blood Root Books in Bridgeport, Conn., is yet another example of a bookstore which has diversified to save itself. The store specializes in feminist titles and is also an excellent vegetarian restaurant. Moreover, it has published several vegetarian cookbooks under the title, The Political Palate , which have been very successful. Bookstore owners Noel Furie, Selma Miriam and Betsey Beaven agree that the bookstore would not have survived without the restaurant. "Early in the 180s, it might have survived [without the restaurant] but now there's no chance," says Furie. "Our business is definitely down with the onslaught of Barnes & Noble and others. It's much harder to get independent publishers."Furie points out another part of the equation which, surprisingly, other bookstore owners do not address: the idea that technology is eliminating the need for books and other written material. "Computers and television cannot be ignored," she says. "Books are becoming obsolete. People just don't read the way they used to." Furie says she and her partners don't own TV sets and haven't technologically updated the store, except to get a touch-tone phone since they were not able to reach people via the old rotary dial. She feels the imminent extinction of the independent bookstore is a menacing reality. "There is a danger that diversity will be eliminated," she says. "Computers are even a bigger problem. They're taking away people's minds. And you need your mind to read."SIDEBAR: The Barnes & Noble DynastyMany bookstore owners concur with Galapagos Books Manager Sisco Bauerle's opinion that Barnes & Noble tries hard to accommodate its customers and recommends other bookstores when a particular book is not available. But some say that that is all part of a shrewd business philosophy which relays the perception that Barnes & Noble is helpful and eager to please.That perception is one of the keys to its great success at least from a business perspective. In the event that anyone doubts Barnes & Noble's business savvy, consider that it refers to itself as, "The World's Largest Bookstore." Indeed, Barnes & Noble is large and has its grandiose interest in several related areas. B. Dalton and Doubleday bookstores are part of this empire, as are several publishing companies. In addition, at the beginning of 1994, Barnes & Noble owned publishing and distribution rights to almost 1,000 titles, an amount which has most likely increased since then. Last year, the company reported nearly $2 billion in revenue, a 22 percent increase in sales from the previous year. Revenues for the company's superstore operations rose 42 percent to $1.3 billion from $952.7 million for the same period. Barnes & Noble operates 358 superstores and 639 mall bookstores in 45 states. The superstores, which generated 68 percent of total company profits last year, measure anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 square feet and each store carries about 120,000 titles. Sixty percent of that stock are geared toward the local market, and discounts on books range from 30 percent on bestsellers, to 60 percent on older titles. "We are the nation's largest bookseller, and we plan to be in that leadership position for many years to come," Barnes & Noble's Executive Vice President Steve Riggio was quoted as saying. He has also said that Barnes & Noble is not like a "predator" on the Upper West Side or elsewhere, nor is it true, he says, that the company is trying to encourage the bestseller mentality. And yet, the bookstore's statistics speak for itself and the average consumer wants what he/she wants.