Running an independent bookstore is a difficult business, and those booksellers who rely heavily on tourists to stay profitable face even more challenges, like weather and being a bit out of the typical publishing cycle. Still, there remains a group of store owners who have found a way to make a living selling books in tourist destinations, and the 2010 vacation season appears to be starting off fairly well, given an early boost by Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy.
Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, on northern Michigan's Lower Peninsula, which has 6,000 year-round residents, notes that his store's traditional selling season began on Memorial Day weekend and ended with the Labor Day weekend. But in the past few years, the season has begun July 4 and continued for only eight weeks. This year, however, the season began two or three weeks earlier than the past few years, and July 5 was the busiest day so far—above last year, and on par with 2007 and 2008. Larsson's trilogy, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, and Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden are "flying off the shelves," Norcross said. Bill Rickman, who co-owns the Island Bookstore with three locations in North Carolina's Outer Banks, says he is "pretty optimistic" about the new season. He's added more sidelines, like Bananagrams games, erasable ballpoint pens for doing crossword puzzles, and reading glasses. And he is stocking his first DVD, the Swedish film version of Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
While the season started early for Norcross, heavy winter snow in much of New England forced school districts to extend the academic year to the end of June, so the resort season didn't get fully underway until the Fourth of July weekend. For Annie Philbrick, co-owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., though, the summer is off to a good start. "2009 was better than 2008, and we're pretty much on par with 2009," she says. Her store, which is kitty-corner from Mystic Pizza, which inspired the eponymous movie, attracts visitors looking for everything from book club titles to help printing boarding passes. "The future of bookselling is to be creative about selling your books and marketing your store," says Philbrick, who opened a satellite bookstore on Memorial Day inside a gift shop on nearby Fishers Island. The island, which has a population of 275 during the winter months, swells to 3,000 during the summer. Philbrick also runs a bookstore for Fairfield University's M.F.A. program on Enders Island.
Although Inkwell Bookstore on Cape Cod in Falmouth, Mass., closed this spring, Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins, also in Falmouth, describes late spring/early summer as "crazy busy, pretty hectic in a fun way." Other stores are in the midst of successful transitions to new owners. Last month employees Jo Gilley, general manager, and Allison Best-Teague, children's book buyer, purchased Blue Ridge Books in the Smoky Mountains in Waynesville, N.C. Free Wi-Fi and a coffee bar stocked with a large selection of newspapers and periodicals continue to bring in some regulars daily, says Best-Teague. The reorganized children's section and working more closely with area schools are also starting to pay off, as is an active reading schedule with authors like Sharyn McCrumb, whose Ballad series is set in Appalachia. "Business has certainly been good," says Best-Teague.
"One of the signs that summer people are in full force are requests for 2010 calendars," says Joseph Barber, who manages the 40-year-old Owl and Turtle Bookshop in Camden, Maine. He also sells quite a few 2011 regional calendars, as well as local-interest books like The Poacher's Son by Down East editor-in-chief Paul Dorion and real estate broker Vicki Duderas's A House to Die For. "This summer's shaping up to be better than the last two," says Barber. "People are spending more money, and people who drive up are buying more books."
Jeff Curtis, who has four Sherman's Books & Stationery stores in coastal Maine, including the 124-year-old Bar Harbor store originally owned by his parents, predicts, "It's not going to be as good as three, four, or five years ago, but it's trending right. Hopefully, the weather will keep up—we really need it to be hot and muggy in Boston." Sherman's sales are split 50/50 between books and stationery and souvenirs. On the book side, the girl has it, says Curtis, who is having trouble keeping the first book in Larsson's series in stock. Jeff Curtis's brother, Michael, who had a Sherman's-style store in Ellsworth, Maine, a couple of decades ago, is the latest landlord to open a bookstore in a vacant storefront that he owns. The end of June marked the grand opening of Union River Book and Toy Co., on Main Street in Ellsworth.
"So far things are looking up quite nicely," says Rob Igoe Jr., president and owner of North Country Books, which has published and distributed books on New York State for the past 45 years and expanded to New England in January 2009. "In the Adirondacks in particular the feedback is up," says Igoe, adding that stores in the gateway areas had very good years during the "staycation" period. Sales for $40 books may have slowed down, but those under $20 are "flying," says Igoe. Among those he singles out are two North Country small-format coffee-table books: Mark Bowie's The Adirondacks: In Celebration of the Seasons and Carl Heilman II's Lake George. On the distribution side, North Country continues to do well with the Adirondack Kids series by 20-year-old Justin VanRiper and his father, Gary VanRiper. With the recent publication of book 10, The Final Daze of Summer, the decade-old series has 120,000 copies in print.
Stores on Martha's Vineyard have also seen a decided uptick in sales. Still, says David Le Breton, owner of Edgartown Books in Edgartown, Mass., "We're waiting for the big one. We hope it's going to be One Day [by David Nicholls]." At Bunch of Grapes in Martha's Vineyard, manager and children's book buyer Katherine Fergason notes that it was not an easy winter, but business has picked up over the past month. She has no hard numbers, since the store burned down two summers ago and then reopened under new ownership on the Fourth of July last year. This summer, Bunch of Grapes is looking to turn summer visitors into year-round shoppers. It is giving in-store customers coupons that they can redeem on the store's newly redesigned bunchofgrapes.com Web site.
Whether the summer's strong start will carry through is still a question mark. "We're guardedly optimistic that the tourists are going to continue to come," says Mark Ouillette, manager of the Bookloft in the Berkshires in Great Barrington, Mass. In the meantime, the Bookloft has taken other steps to maximize sales, such as buying conservatively and relying on just-in-time inventory.
How They Do It
Although Norcross acknowledges that McLean & Eakin "loses money every day it's open from January through June," he says it's essential to stay open year-round. The store employs eight booksellers all year and eight temporary employees each summer. Explaining his refusal to limit store hours or lay off any of his eight career year-round employees to cut costs during the lean times, Norcross insists, "Their knowledge and their dedication is what makes that eight-week period and four weeks during the holidays [when sales are comparable to the peak summer months] what it is," which results in the store making a profit.
Like McLean & Eakin, Novel Ideas in Baileys Harbor, on Wisconsin's rural Door County peninsula, has summer and holiday rushes that keep the store—in a town of 1,000 year-round residents—in the black the entire year. While sales had dropped in recent years, this summer's selling season started with a bang with sales on July 4 a little higher than last year's, and sales on July 5 almost double last year's sales. "We're a little bit up this year, " says Michelle Palmer, who co-owns Novel Ideas with her father. "It's a great start to the season," which usually ends in late October and bumps after Thanksgiving. Books selling well at Novel Ideas this summer include the Larsson trilogy, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, which, though released in 2008, is "making a comeback," Palmer says.
Drury Lane in Grand Marais, Minn.—located in a county the size of Rhode Island with only 5,000 year-round residents—is flush with customers and sales during the summer months. In contrast to McLean & Eakin and Novel Ideas, though, there is no winter holiday bump for the store, which is 110 miles north of the nearest U.S. city and 75 miles south of the nearest Canadian city. "At least 80% of our sales occur between Memorial Day weekend and mid-October," declares Lee Stewart, Drury Lane's manager and only full-time employee, adding, though, that sales have been flat the past two years. This summer, sales dropped below last year's sales, down 5% in June. "People are still holding back," Stewart says, attributing the decline to the fact that northern Minnesota's economy lags behind the rest of the country. She expects sales to pick up next summer.
Drury Lane cuts costs during the low season by cutting back on days and hours. The store is closed the entire month of April, during the "mud season," when the town's other businesses also shut down. Stewart starts ordering stock in the spring and "heavily, every day during the summer." The store holds a huge sale on Memorial Day weekend, which "allows us to put in a lot of fresh and new books," she says, adding that the summer is packed with in-store author events and writers workshops. But Stewart perceives a "noticeable" difference in fulfillment during the winter and the summer. "Books seem more available during the holiday season," she complains. "The publishing industry makes things easier in winter, just when I'm cutting back."
While Norcross has no problems ordering books, because, he says, his regional sales reps are "very tuned in" to his store's seasonal selling cycle, he, too, has felt the impact of a peak selling season that coincides with the New York publishing world's tradition of holding summer hours. "We're sitting here at the peak of the summer season, scratching our heads on why publishers take summer hours when we're trying to contact them," he says.