As memories fade of the strong 2010 holiday season that finished up a flat year, the bookstore scene across the Midwest continues to shift, with stores opening and closing. According to the Midwest Booksellers Association, whose membership is located in nine states, 39 MBA stores closed between 2006 and 2010, while 28 stores opened. And after 11 MBA stores closed in 2009, only four closed in 2010, with six MBA stores opened during that same two-year period.
Like booksellers everywhere, the reasons these booksellers cite for closing are as diverse as the booksellers themselves. There's a common theme, however, when booksellers in this region talk about opening stores: community.
Much of the most recent movement among Midwestern booksellers has centered on Minnesota. In January, Boneshaker Books opened in Minneapolis, with its all-volunteer staff trying to fill the void left by the closing of Arise! Books last year. Farther north, in Duluth, Anita Zager closed Northern Lights Books after 17 years in business, citing a perfect storm of increased family responsibilities, the economy, and contending with e-books.
Out on the state's Iron Range, Shirley Woodward, the owner of Woodward's, in the town of Virginia, wants to retire after 40 years in retail. Woodward, who will turn 80 in April, says if she can't find a buyer, she'll close her 4,000-square-feet full-service general bookstore when the lease is up on March 31, 2013. "I can't keep going forever," she says of her business, which she opened in 1971 as a yarn and needlework store, adding books to the inventory in 1988. Woodward currently stocks primarily books, with about 25% of the store's total inventory quilting fabrics and knitting materials.
Even though some interest has been expressed in acquiring the store, there's been no follow-through from prospective buyers. Although the local economy is starting to pick up, book sales were down in 2010, the "toughest year" Woodward has ever seen. None of her 10 employees want to take on the responsibilities of ownership. "They're older, they're part-time, and they like that. I don't blame them," she says.
While Woodward voiced hope that someone with deep pockets would move north from the Twin Cities and take the store off her hands, Charlie Leonard, whose store, the Bookcase, is located in Wayzata, an affluent Minneapolis suburb, wants to continue selling books there. But he needs to find a subtenant to take over the rest of his lease, so that he can move into a less expensive building.
While sales were up the early part of last year, they dropped in spring and summer, Leonard says; although he finished the year with healthy holiday sales, he can't afford the rent on the 1,500-square-foot space that he's leased through spring 2014. "The store's long-term survival depends on getting costs down," Leonard says. "The biggest expense is rent. The longer we stay in this space, the harder it will be to stay in business."
Beyond Minnesota, two new booksellers both emphasize their respective community's commitment to supporting local businesses as being a major factor for each deciding to open a bookstore. In Kate Rattenborg's case, her community is Decorah, Iowa, a college town with 11,000 residents, whom she describes as "artistic, literary, and intellectual." Teresa Kirshbraun is opening CityLits in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, which has 82,715 residents within a three-mile radius.
Rattenborg, a former academic librarian who most recently worked in the financial services industry, opened Dragonfly Books in a 1,300-square-foot space on February 4. Although Dragonfly is a full-service general bookstore, there will be an emphasis on Native American literature, regional titles, local history, and local authors. Rattenborg also is selling Google e-books through the ABA's Web site. Since Decorah already has a children's and a Christian bookstore, Dragonfly will not stock titles in those areas, so as not to compete with other local businesses. "I've overanalyzed the risk and crunched the numbers," Rattenborg insists. "I wasn't going to do this unless I thought it was going to work."
Kirshbraun's impetus for opening CityLits this summer is her desire to "do something for my community," because there's "really nothing" serving the residents of Logan Square as well as the adjacent Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods. Kirshbraun, who's managed several small businesses in the health care field, is in the midst of negotiations to rent an 1,800-square-foot space, where she intends to open a full-service general bookstore. Although she has not decided yet whether to sell e-books, Kirshbraun will stock Spanish-language literature to better serve the neighborhood's 65% Latino demographic. "I've heard from people that they can't find Spanish-language novels in this city," she says. "I'll have a small section and see how it goes."
Reflecting upon the viability of opening a small independent bookstore when large bookstore chains are struggling, Kirshbraun says, "Bookstores are kind of like Starbucks: it's a place to come to, a necessary luxury that's affordable. People need that."