At this morning’s Book and Author Breakfast, Publishers Weekly’s co-editorial director Jim Milliot presents Square Books in Oxford, Miss., with the magazine’s annual Bookstore of the Year award, a tradition started 21 years ago. PW wanted to find a way to honor booksellers who “show how books can be sold and marketed without compromising the things most booksellers cherish: the written word, good writing, beautiful books.”
From the start, the stores selected for the PW Bookstore of the Year Award have tried to create new bookselling models or tweak existing ones. The first winner, in 1993, Nickleby’s Bookstore Cafe in Columbus, Ohio, fused books and food to create an “entertainment business.” Although the store faltered after one partner moved on, Nickleby’s was one of only two winners that have since closed. The other, Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, 2004’s winner, in Milwaukee, Wis., arguably lives on in both Boswell Book Company, founded by longtime Schwartz buyer Daniel Goldin in a former Schwartz location, and in 800-CEO-Reads, which spun off from the store. Together the PW booksellers have done far better than most general independents over the past two decades and have survived both the chain age and the onslaught of Amazon.
Typical of award winners are successful transitions like the sale of Politics & Prose Bookstore (winner in 1999) to Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine two years ago or the upcoming passing of the baton by Roberta Rubin, longtime owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court (2012) in Winnetka, Ill., to Stephanie Hochschild on July 1. “What I love is hearing people say, ‘I’m so happy you’ve found somebody. We don’t want to see [the bookstore] go away,’ ” says Rubin. The Book Stall’s in no danger of that. Rubin’s seen strong sales in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. “Five years ago, bookstores were all in trouble,” she says. “Now stores are coming back. We had our best year ever last year. So far, we’re ahead this year about 3%. I attribute it to people returning to the book and shopping local. It’s a good time for independent booksellers.”
She’s not the only one to see record-breaking numbers. The same holds true for BookPeople (2005) in Austin, Tex., which, according to owner and American Booksellers Association incoming president Steve Bercu, is poised to have its best year ever in 2013—for the fourth year in a row. “I think there’s a fairly strong resurgence of independents,” says Bercu. “One reason is Borders going away and all that shelf space. The second is localism. Everybody wants to be part of local, and publishers realize that they have to support physical bookstores in ways that matter.” Plus, Bercu is constantly refining what the store does and how it does it: “I operate on the principle that I have basically the same customer all the time to look at the same stuff: the product mix and the merchandising.”
Bercu is one of several bookstore award winners to head the ABA; outgoing president Becky Anderson co-owns Anderson’s Bookshops (2011) in Naperville, Ill. This year’s winner, Square Books, is headed by a past president and current board member on the Tennessee Valley Authority, Richard Howorth. Changing Hands Bookstore (2007), in Tempe, Ariz.; Northshire Bookstore (2006), in Manchester Center, Vt.; and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore (2003), in Vineyard Haven, Mass., all boast former ABA heads. “Being ABA members and active in the ABA makes us smarter booksellers,” says Cindy Dach, Changing Hands general manager and co-owner.
While some stores have successfully transitioned or are on the market—Quail Ridge Books & Music (2001), in Raleigh, N.C., and R.J. Julia Booksellers (1995), in Madison, Conn., are both for sale—others are in the midst of expanding or redefining themselves. Some are doing both. Kepler’s Books & Magazines (1994) in Menlo Park, Calif., recently transitioned to hybrid ownership under Praveen Madan and Christin Evans, who also own Booksmith in San Francisco. In addition to being a for-profit bookstore, Kepler’s now has a nonprofit events arm.
Across the country in Manchester Center, Vt., Northshire Bookstore has long been in the forefront of change. It was the first trade bookstore in North America to offer print-on-demand via an Espresso Book Machine and one of the first to sell trade books on consignment. After 37 years the store is about to add a second location at the end of July, Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “I would not be opening a second store just to open a second store,” says general manager and co-owner Chris Morrow. “When Borders went under, customers started writing to me.” They also helped him raise funds for the new store using a financial version of a CSA, or CSE (community supported enterprise), which can be converted from debt to equity.
Changing Hands is expanding in November into nearby Phoenix through an unusual financing model of its own. The store is part of an ownership team that includes the 17,000-sq.-ft. building’s architect and another tenant, Beckett’s Table. At the new space Changing Hands will offer beer and wine at its First Draft bar in addition to books. In order to bringing the Tempe store’s culture to the new location, co-owner Cindy Dach says that she and a set of managers will manage both stores for the first one or two years. The stores are about 30 minutes apart.
Although Harvard Book Store (2002) in Cambridge, Mass., hasn’t found a second location yet, the store had two outlets for many years: its flagship store across from Harvard University and a bookstore cafe on Newbury Street in Boston. Owner Jeff Mayersohn, who bought the bookstore five years ago, has looked at several Cambridge locations that would enable him to capitalize on the success of Harvard’s twice yearly open warehouse sales. “Our warehouse sale has sort of gone viral with huge year-over-year increases,” he says. Another approach he’s considering is opening the warehouse more frequently to the public.
After Joseph-Beth Booksellers, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two years ago with fewer stores and a new owner, it came back determined to grow by reinvesting. For president and CEO Mark Wilson, that meant renovating the bistros as well as the book sections, starting with the Lexington, Ky., store. A similar change in Cincinnati has made Wilson realize “[the bistro] is more than a complement to the bookstore. It’s a key experience.” In addition, Joseph-Beth just moved its offices to a building with a larger warehouse, so that it can lower its costs by distributing books to the stores centrally rather than direct shipments from publishers. It’s also in the midst of testing its first portable pop-up at a grocery in Cincinnati. “For us, it’s all about engaging with the community,” says Wilson.
Redefining is good, but sometimes a radical transformation isn’t necessary or even desirable. “We’re the curators for the vision that’s been here since the beginning,” says buyer Paul Yamazaki, who has been with City Lights Books (2010), in San Francisco, for more than 40 of its 60 years. “One of the things that makes us different is that we have the whole staff participate in backlist and frontlist decisions.” Clearly that system, which dates to the bookstore’s founding in 1953, continues to work. The bookstore had its three best years in terms of gross sales in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Yamazaki says that it’s on track to have its best spring ever. “
When I think about the past 20 years, there are so many times I’ve heard about my death,” says Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia’s, which was up 7% the first four months of the year. “Booksellers and small business owners are resilient.” Two changes she’d like to see are a way for booksellers to get access to venture capital for innovation and for independent booksellers to become Goodreads collectively. “There’s a lot of wisdom in the stores that are left, a lot of smart business sense,” she says.
“So much has changed,” notes Donna Paz Kaufman of Paz & Associates, who has coordinated the bookseller awards for two decades. “It’s time to keep developing the bookstore concept, because it’s clear people still want a community bookstore. Indies can meet the challenge.” And PW will continue to single out those that do.