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With the growth in online sales, together with a fragile economy and high unemployment cutting into their customer base, commercial real estate developers are appealing to consumers by creating multipurpose community destinations that provide a mix of retail, dining, entertainment, and services. While many developers prefer to include chain bookstores in their plans, others are approaching independent booksellers to fill vacant spaces. Assisted by industry insiders, a few developers are even becoming bookstore owners themselves to ensure that their properties include a stable bookstore.

At the Providence Towne Center in Collegeville, Pa., the 2008 economic crisis worked to one independent’s advantage. When mall construction began five years ago, P.K. Sindwani, the owner of Trappe Book Center, tried to persuade its developers, Brandolini Property Management, to add him to the tenant roster. But they wanted to lease space to big box stores, including Barnes & Noble. “At first they wouldn’t even talk to me,” Sindwani recalls, speaking to PW from his store, now called Towne Book Center & Cafe. “Then the economy tanked, and Barnes & Noble backed out.”

Brandolini contacted Sindwani and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: they paid to renovate the 8,000-sq.-ft. retail space previously earmarked for B&N and gave him rent subsidies. The Towne Book Center opened its doors this past March, and is both the smallest and the only locally owned business in the mall, which currently is at about 50% occupancy. “[Brandolini] says I bring in a lot of people,” Sindwani says, noting that his sales have gone up 70% this year. “They’re happy, I’m happy.”

After Tabani Group, a national commercial real estate company, purchased the Village Mall in Danville, Ill., in May, one of its first orders of business was to find a bookstore to fill a 3,200-sq.-ft. retail space that had been vacated by Waldenbooks in January 2010. “We’re a family-owned company. Our directive is to bring in concepts that will do well and will serve the community well,” says Jeremiah Sunden, a Tabani acquisitions and leasing director. “And we like to support local and regional tenants.”

Sunden contacted Jackie Hillman, who six months earlier had closed her used and remainders bookstore in a nearby town as she looked for a new space elsewhere. Hillman’s store, A Novel Idea, is scheduled to open in the Village Mall by October 1. “It was the logical thing to do,” Sunden says, expressing confidence that although A Novel Idea is only one of among 35 to 40 tenants in the 500,000-sq.-ft. regional mall, it’s going to generate a lot of traffic, since it’ll be the city’s only general bookstore.

In Rapid City, S.D., news this summer that the local Borders would close prompted businessman Ray Hillenbrand to add a bookstore to the downtown retail/dining district he’s developing. Mitzi’s Main Street Books is scheduled to open by Thanksgiving and will be staffed by former Borders employees. The bookstore consultants group, Paz & Associates, is guiding Hillenbrand and his staff through the store’s first year.

While Hillenbrand decided to open a bookstore primarily because his late sister, Mitzi Lally, was adamant that Rapid City had to have a general-interest bookstore, two commercial real estate developers—Jeff Levy and Robert Langley—acquired bookstores located in malls they own for purely business reasons: each wanted to ensure that the profit-generating bookstore already there would remain.

“I never thought I’d be in the bookstore business, but circumstances dictated it,” Langley says. ”I’m a developer, not a bookstore person.”

“I couldn’t afford to lose them,” he insists, referring to his acquisition in April of the 25-year-old Lexington, Ky., Joseph-Beth Booksellers, an anchor store in the Mall at Lexington Green. The 45,000-sq.-ft. bookstore contains 25% of the mall’s total retail space. The Joseph-Beth regional bookstore chain, which at the time included seven Joseph-Beth stores and two Davis-Kidd stores, filed for Chapter 11 in November 2010. After creditors rejected founder Neil Van Uum’s reorganization plan, all of the remaining stores were put up to auction.

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