Despite the difficulties that all booksellers face—from economic woes to succession, real estate costs, and changes in the way people read and shop—there are stores that have successfully made the transition from the 1700s and 1800s to become 21st-century retailers. Some, like 125-year-old Sherman's Books, the youngest on the oldest 10 list, diversified their product mix from the start with toys and stationery items. Others, like the 202-year-old Andover Bookstore and 136-year-old Burke's Book Store, continue to benefit from their relationships with nearby schools. At 138-year-old Iowa State University Book Store, however, that connection hasn't proved strong enough to preserve its general book department, which was significantly pruned this spring. And Books Inc., the oldest bookstore in the West, is one of the few stores to emerge from Chapter 11 even stronger. With 13 stores, it now has an additional moniker, the largest independent regional chain in the U.S.
Moravian Book Shop,
● Founded in 1745
"You have to embrace new technology," says Dana DeVito, general manager of the oldest bookstore in the U.S. Moravian sold 30 e-books last month, but it also offers old-fashioned curb service and local delivery for print books. Although the store does well with its Christmas shop and gift store, DeVito says that the largest percentage of sales comes from books, which account for 31%. Nor has the amount of space devoted to books changed, although some sections are regularly revamped. Children's is being done over to look like an enchanted forest. "We try to change it so there's something different each season," says DeVito. As part of its marketing efforts, Moravian holds a number of in-store events and even offers a ghost tour of local historic haunts.
● Founded in 1809
"Basically the biggest thing for us over the years has been great staff," says John Hugo of HugoBookstores, with stores in Andover, Newburyport, and Marblehead. Of course, Andover's relationship with the nearby prep school Phillips Academy hasn't hurt. The bookstore was founded by the second headmaster, and Hugo says that Phillips has always made up a solid quarter of sales. Over the past year, that has meant a lot more logo items, including garment bags and watches. Andover prides itself on changing with the times in other ways. The store recently invested in new fixtures and lighting and updated its POS system. This summer it added a yarn boutique and used books. "So far [used books] are 100% cash flow with no bill," says Hugo, who would like to roll out used sections in the other two stores. "If you're small you can be nimble."
Bookstore, Gambier, Ohio
● Founded in 1829
In the past few years Kenyon has gone through several management changes, which included hiring former mystery bookstore owner Jim Huang as general manager. The oldest college bookstore in the country, Kenyon implemented many of the ideas of the National Association of College Store's 2015 model years ago. It sells trade titles, especially fiction, poetry, and children's books, as well as textbooks and apparel. There's even a convenience store with food, screwdrivers, and ice scrapers, along with a library-like study space that can accommodate roughly 50 students. Huang finds it ironic that students are downloading textbooks and ordering online when Kenyon's founder wanted a bookstore to make it easier for students to get books. In a letter dated 1825 the founder wrote: "Is every young man to send hither and thither for a book?"
● Founded in 1841
"We're just bound and determined that this bookstore is going ahead," says owner Betsy Rider, whose father purchased Otto in 1940, the year she was born. Her bookselling inspiration comes from David Farragut: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" In recent years that has meant some belt tightening, and little salary for Rider, as well as an updated Web site (www.ottobookstore.com), weekly radio reviews, author signings with a regional focus, and partnering with other downtown businesses on First Friday events. For Rider, it also translates into personal service and hand-selling. A voracious reader herself, she presses her 10 children to read and review books, too.
Books Inc., headquartered in San Francisco
● Founded in 1851
"We're the only [bookstore] chain that has come out of Chapter 11," says owner Michael Tucker. "We got hammered 15 years ago when the chains came in. So we changed the format of what we did." Rather than 18,000-to-20,000-sq.-ft. stores, Books Inc. now targets spaces with 3,000 to 3,500 sq. ft. in neighborhoods where customers can stop by three times a week in the normal course of their activities. "So far we've been successful," says Tucker. "We're starting to see some rebound. Business is up 5% for the year." He credits this to fundamentals like staff training. "We really demand that staff be on the floor and out talking to customers," he says. Books Inc. also uses events to draw customers and leverages social media. In April, with the opening of a new Compass Books at San Francisco International Airport, Books Inc. grew to 13 stores; in 1976, it had 26.
Schoenhof's Foreign Books, Cambridge, Mass.
● Founded in 1856
Despite occupying a niche market, in the late 1990s and early 2000s the country's oldest foreign-language bookstore went through what manager Eleni Sacre describes as "a very rough patch." And in 2005 it merged with MEP, which owns a foreign-language bookstore in Chicago, Europa Books. "We are often asked if things are going okay," says Sacre. "But we are committed to and planning on at least another 155 years." To reach that goal, Schoenhof's is looking for ways to integrate new technologies into its business model and developing a platform to sell both foreign-language e-books and e-textbooks. It already sells foreign-language course books through its Web site (www
.schoenhofs.com) and continues to wholesale books, although that business is now handled by MEP.
The Dalles, Ore.
● Founded in 1870
"I think we're very different from most stores," says manager Tina Ontiveros, who describes Klindt's as "a very old-fashioned bookstore," which has had only three families own it over the past 141 years. The store itself has the original floors, cabinets, and bookshelves, and until recently relied on microfiche for title information. Although Klindt's doesn't have a POS system, it does have computers. And Ontiveros uses them to order from two distributors daily to convince customers she can get books for them more quickly, and without shipping charges, than Amazon. In addition to buying books for the store, Ontiveros buys for the town's public and school libraries. "It's great for me as a marketing tool," she says. "I know what they're ordering and what I should be ordering."
Iowa State University Book Store, Ames, Iowa
● Founded in 1873
Two years ago, ISU Book Store nearly doubled in size to 21,000 sq. ft. to serve its students better. "Our enrollment is growing tremendously. I'm hearing projections of 28,000 students and with that comes additional courses," says ISU Book Store manager Amy DeLashmutt. While textbooks account for roughly 40% of sales, the bookstore sells a lot of Apple, Dell, and HP computers. "That's the predominant part of our sales," says DeLash-mutt. So much so that in May ISU downsized its general books section, which represents only 1% of sales. "It's difficult out here," says DeLashmutt. "We're looking at ways we can serve our customers without a lot of inventory. We just try to stay on top of the challenges. It's about making tough decisions."
Burke's Book Store,
● Founded in 1875
"In thinking about what has kept us going, luck plays a part," says co-owner Cheryl Mesler, who credits both luck and friends with helping her and her husband, Corey, find a new location in a neighborhood with lots of foot traffic when Burke's fell on hard times five years ago. "Being where we are lets us be the bookstore we want to be, a browsing bookstore," says Mesler. The store's focus is on books, particularly backlist fiction and Southern books. Postcards are the only sideline. But Burke's biggest sales come from books sold to parochial schools for grades k–12. "We service four private schools. That's all I do from May to Labor Day," says Mesler, who estimates that school sales account for two-thirds of the store's business. The store also stocks used books, but it has cut back on rare titles. "When I first started [in 1990], rare books were a big part of Burke's. The Internet killed that off," says Mesler.
Boothbay Harbor, Maine
● Founded in 1886
When Jeff Curtis's parents bought the original Sherman's in Bar Harbor, there were very few books in the store. "Looking back," he says, "my father was ahead of the times. He added anything somebody would ask for. He'd say, I'll have it for you next week." As a result Sherman's, which has since expanded to include stores in Camden, Freeport, and Boothbay Harbor, has long stocked stationery, toys, and gifts. "There was definitely a time when pure bookstore aficionados looked down at a store like us," says Curtis. "We had an author who complained about signing next to lobster key chains. Now bookselling's come full circle. People ask, what else can we sell?" He keeps the stores open year-round to avoid training new people each spring. Sales, says Curtis, are "steady. In Maine we always say we never boom and we never bust. Things chug along."