When iconic bookstores like Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., and the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., changed hands earlier this year against the backdrop of the closing of Borders, it reaffirmed the importance of independents. But as the new owners quickly learned, talking with other booksellers, relying on long-established systems, and having a brand name aren’t always enough to ensure a smooth transition.
The process of transferring ownership of a bookstore is never wholly seamless, says bookstore consultant Donna Paz Kaufman of Paz & Associates. She recommends that new owners take steps beforehand to make the acquisition as painless as possible. “Read the industry publications; go to the industry gatherings to connect with your new professional network. You need to understand how the industry works,” she says.
Still, attending Paz & Associates' bookseller school and the American Booksellers Association’s Day of Education weren’t enough to prepare Holly Weinkauf and Amy Sullivan for having the Red Balloon placed on credit hold, when publishers learned that they would purchase the 27-year-old bookstore, fully stocked, at the beginning of this month. “It came as quite a surprise,” says Weinkauf, when publishers stopped shipping. All but one lifted the hold after receiving a letter from founding owners Michele Cromer-Poiré and Carol Erdahl. Questions also arose over whether returns would be honored and co-op transferred, even though it was a going-concern sale. “There was a rush on the staff’s part the last few weeks to use up co-op,” adds Weinkauf.
When Jacqueline Kellachan and Paul McMenemy purchased the 30-year-old Golden Notebook in Woodstock, N.Y., last September, they also encountered credit difficulties. Publishers viewed it as a new operation with no credit history—a similar problem forced one of Borders’s potential suitors to back out. In their case, Kellachan and McMenemy simply re-opened the store with a fresh coat of paint and mostly empty shelves. “That was a challenge,” says Kellachan. She estimates that the store was initially only one-third stocked. By Christmas sales were strong enough that the store was half full. Now there’s only one empty book bay. “It was really hard,” says Kellachan, “the cash flow and the investment in inventory. In some ways it was good to have a low threshold, so we didn’t go over it.” After adding an IndieCommerce site (goldennotebook.com) this summer so that Golden Notebook can begin selling e-books, Kellachan’s looking at renovating the unused second floor of the store for book clubs and other book gatherings.
Doug and Mary Miller, former Twin Cities corporate executives, faced an entirely different difficulty when they purchased Rainy Days Books in the resort community of Nisswa, Minn., in April 2010. After confusion arose between the 20-year-old bookstore’s name and that of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., 500 miles away, the Millers were forced to rename the store. In May, they chose Turtle Books & Gifts, to reflect 10 new sidelines they had added as well as Nisswa’s weekly turtle races in the summer. They expect to have new signage soon, along with a new Web site (www.turtletownnisswa.com). “We bought it because it was an established bookstore,” says Mary Miller. “It’s frightening when you have to change the name of an established business.”
Politics and Prose co-owner Lissa Muscatine credits the long and deliberate sales process chosen by former owners Barbara Mead and David Cohen with helping her and her husband, Bradley Graham, refine their thinking about the bookstore and getting to know the industry. It also gave them an opportunity to meet one-on-one with each of the store’s more than 50 staffers. During the transition, Mead, who will stay on at the store three days a week until the end of the year, also made a point of introducing them to customers.”
Even so, the transition hasn’t been without a few hiccups as Muscatine and Graham learn the store’s internal operations and try to plan for the future. “We’re thinking of ways to strengthen what we do and change it and refine it,” says Muscatine. That translates into clearer window displays and in-store displays of featured readers’ books, selling e-books, and expanding the store’s offering of classes and partnerships, as well as rethinking the store’s Web site and digital strategy.