In a time when bookstores are adding used-book sections to bolster their diminishing numbers of new book sales (see, for example, Anderson's Books, PW's 2011 Bookstore of the Year, PW, Apr. 25), Nashville's BookMan/BookWoman used-book store has recently broadened its selection to include new titles—specifically, current bestsellers and "what we think should be bestsellers," all for sale at 20% off the cover price.
The book man and woman behind BookMan/BookWoman are married co-owners Saralee and Larry D. Woods, longtime Nashville residents who parleyed his out-of-control book collection first into a successful mail-order book business, and later into a bricks-and-mortar store called BookMan. An expansion three years later led to the addition of "BookWoman" to the store's name. Currently, the store has four full-time and four part-time employees and has been "steady and stable for the past 10 years despite Amazon.com, Costco, Target, the Kindle, and the Nook," according to Saralee.
Though they've always carried a handful of new titles as a service to the book clubs and as part of author events, the Woods knew their customers were facing a diminishing number of outlets for new books in the area: since the shuttering of Borders and the beloved Tennessee chain Davis-Kidd, the only source for new books was a Books-a-Million several miles west of the metro area. "We live in a town that likes to read a lot," Saralee says, "and we're in such a great location, walking distance from several universities": Vanderbilt, Belmont, and Tennessee State, which together account for more than 30,000 students and faculty. BookMan/BookWoman customers were the driving force behind the change in inventory. New books now make up 15%–20% of both their stock and their sales, and customer reaction has been extremely positive: "I could not even get [Adam Ross's bestseller] Mr. Peanut out of the box before customers started buying it," Saralee notes.
Both Saralee and Larry are compulsive readers, but Larry has always had an especially hard time passing up used-book stores: "I have never had to compete with other women," says Saralee, "just his love of books!" By the mid-1990s, Larry had amassed a 100,000-volume collection in desperate need of culling. Though the original store slogan was "Selling my husband's books," Saralee said, "It's just become an excuse to buy more books." Both their store and their home still house about 100,000 titles each.
The Woods opened their shop following Nashville's annual Southern Festival of Books in 1995, selling everything that first week at half price, including valuable first editions; collectors took notice. Determined to make theirs the "friendliest bookstore around," the Woods were doing well enough a few years later to move to a larger space. Even more impressive is the community goodwill they had generated in that short time, enough to draw some 50 customers out at 5 a.m. on Easter morning, 1998, to help them hand-carry their inventory—all 100,000 volumes—across the street to the new storefront. Saralee says of the move, "It was great fun and was covered widely in the local media, and I hope we never have to do it again."
Saralee and Larry have since joined the media, appearing regularly on a middle Tennessee/southern Kentucky/northern Alabama CBS daytime TV show Talk of the Town (which Saralee notes is "top rated") with a he said/she said review of new books. Saralee calls it "a fresh and entertaining effort to encourage reading and to present current titles," but also an important aspect of their bookstore's success: "Larry and I are recognized as the BookMan and the BookWoman everywhere we go. We can't get away with anything."
The Woods currently sell their catalogue online through Abebooks.com, but are "working on a plan of action now" to switch to ABA's BookSense and get into e-book sales, says Saralee. At the same time, they're increasing space within the store for more books on the floor and more bodies at readings and other events.
Larry, a lawyer and speaking coach involved in both politics and academia, suggests a few authors who fit into the "should be a bestseller" category, including Mary Roach ("she can go effortlessly from the heights of seriousness to laugh-out-loud-in-the-dead-of-night funny") and historian David Halberstam ("My problem," he says, "is that I read a lot of history"). Both Woods, however, insist that it's their customers' taste, not their own, that shape BookMan/BookWoman's selection: "I think there's a lot of partnership between customers and bookstore owners," says Saralee, who credits the former for turning her attention to pre–Da Vinci Code Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson before Dragon Tattoo became a juggernaut. "Our customers are our teachers."