For the past decade the American Booksellers Association has been warning about the need for succession plans and the graying of booksellers. While some well-known bookstores have sold in recent years and a number of new bookstores have opened their doors, 2012 proved to be a pivotal year for a number of stores founded 25 or more years ago. In January, Clark Kepler announced that he would retire and the future of Kepler’s Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., seemed precarious until Booksmith owners Praveen Madan and Christin Evans stepped in. The following months saw for-sale signs at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn.; Mystery Lovers Book Shop in Oakmont, Pa.; That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark.; and Inkwood Books in Tampa, Fla., among others.
Some bookstores have changed hands. But others, like Pinocchio’s children’s bookstore in Memphis, closed when owners Judy Korones, age 80, and Miriam Epstein, age 73, couldn’t find a buyer.
Below are some thoughts from three booksellers who are exiting the business; two are selling their stores and a third will close at year’s end.
Roberta Rubin, age 75, owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill.
PW’s 2012 Bookstore of the Year.
Founded in 1972, three potential buyers.
Early days: Rubin began her bookselling career at Glencoe Book Shop, before buying the Book Stall in 1982. Five years later she purchased Chestnut Court and more than doubled her space when she moved into a 2,500-sq.-ft. location. In 1999, the store added a third awning and another 1,000 sq. ft. “Of course, the heart and soul of this growth are the books and the authors who write them and the readers who enjoy them,” wrote Rubin on the store’s 25th anniversary. That sentiment continues to make the Book Stall a community favorite.
Challenges: “All the undulations, all the cycles of bookselling. In the late 1980s, Crown opened and left, then Barnes & Noble and Borders opened all around us. That was the hardest part of the ’90s. [Today] I suppose the e-book and so much going on with the computer, the iPad, the cellphone—all the things that keep people busy,” says Rubin. She also cites the “A” word, Amazon, as a disrupter, as well as the economy. “I think 2008 hit us between the eyes,” she says. “With the decline in the economy we saw sales drop.” Sales have since rebounded.
Advice to new booksellers: “Think smaller” is at the top of Rubin’s list. She started with 1,000 sq. ft. and expanded to 5,000 sq. ft. and persuaded Caribou Coffee, then independent, to open a store on the corner. “Now I don’t feel you need as much space,” says Rubin. “You can do events off-site. If I had to do it again, I’d reduce my space.” Although she frequently does five or six events a day, that’s one area where she wouldn’t make any cuts. “I think events are our cachet, our signature ability to meet the bottom line. We do some online business, but events are what pull them in. I’m saying to the people looking at my store, keep it up.” And, she adds, “be a friend to your community. Community involvement is one of the top requirements.”
Nancy Olson, age 71, owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C.
PW’s 2001 Bookseller of the Year.
Founded in 1984, on the market since November.
Early days: “Algonquin Books [in Chapel Hill] started the same year we did. A renaissance of Southern writing helped us grow,” says Olson, who was one of the first booksellers to hold author readings. She also attributes the store’s growth to her husband, Jim, who funded the store’s 1994 move to its current location and its expansion from 1,200 sq. ft. to 9,400 sq. ft. At a time when other bookstores were adding cafes, Olson surveyed her customers about whether they wanted a coffee shop or more books. “One hundred percent said more books,” says Olson.
Challenges: “Our sales were growing so rapidly, I don’t think I ever felt challenged until Amazon came along. We weathered the chains and ducked by offering personal service and books,” says Olson, who is bitter about Amazon’s special treatment over sales tax. The store also weathered 9/11, when sales dropped from a peak of $3.4 million to $3 million; the rise of e-books; and a bookkeeper who embezzled nearly $400,000. Today, she says, “we’re surviving, thriving, and making a profit.”
Advice to new booksellers: “Develop your philosophy of good books and good service, and stick to it. We carry Fifty Shades of Grey, but that’s not what we’re known for and what made us strong. We’ve got to be special. Have your mission and stick to it,” says Olson, who would like to stay connected to the store after it is sold.
Larry Robin, age 70, owner of Robin’s Books in Philadelphia, Pa.
Founded in 1936, closing December 31.
Early days: Robin began working in his grandfather’s store when he graduated from high school in 1960. “[It was] a wonderful period,” he says. “Paperbacks were just starting to boom. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement were just starting. The antiwar movement was growing. We were the test case for Tropic of Cancer.” Robin’s was the only store in Philadelphia to carry the Henry Miller novel and sold 7,000 copies in one week.
Challenges: “The point at which discounters like Encore arose,” says Robin. “What that started is that [new] books aren’t worth the price that’s printed on them. [More recently] Amazon used books as a loss leader to get mailing lists to sell you junk. Bookstores used to be able to supplement new book sales with used books. Amazon’s stolen that, too. You can’t compete with them and they’ve raised their rates” to used-book resellers. While Robin’s made it through tough times by buying its building in 1980, no more. “Bookselling is a hobby. My hobby just got too expensive,” says Robin, who will continue producing author events through Moonstone Arts Center, the nonprofit he started in 1983. But he won’t be selling books at them, because people come to readings with books they bought at Amazon.
Advice to new booksellers: “You have to think about a narrow market. There’s no such thing as loyalty. What you’ll have is a clientele that comes to you, because you’re serving them. It’s almost the underground economy, because it’s not quite big enough for Target to sell it. The problem in the digital age, and this isn’t just Amazon, anybody can get anything online. The danger is they never see anything they weren’t looking for.”