Over the past five years, rent hikes and competition from big-box retailers and online discounters have contributed to bricks-and-mortar bookstores closing their shops and moving their operations online. While few general booksellers have made online-only stores work, Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, N.Y., and a number of other niche booksellers are having much more success. After spending three years weighing the pros and cons of closing the store, Hue-Man CEO and co-owner Marva Allen said she has no regrets about her decision to close up shop and go online-only at the end of July when her lease was up. Allen didn’t even try to negotiate with her landlord over rent, which she anticipated would likely have tripled or even quintupled. “I love [being online-only]. I don’t feel I would reopen unless I had a clear picture of what the bookstore of the future looks like,” she said.
Although Allen fields calls daily from customers who want her to reopen the store, she has found other ways to satisfy the community’s interest in meeting authors of color and learning about their books—pop-up events. “We decided to do six or seven events a month rather than the 26 we used to do,” she said. “It turns out it’s a really good model. We [hold the events at] other businesses, so it’s a win-win.” For some authors, Hue-Man simply handles book sales, as it did for Dennis Kimbro’s talk on The Wealth Choice: Success Secrets of Black Millionaires, which was sponsored by SuccessNET at Hotel Pennsylvania last month. For others, like actress Victoria Rowell, author of The Young and the Ruthless, the store helps find the right site and provides food and drink.
Without the physical store, Allen now has more time to develop the Hue-Man brand, both in the U.S. and abroad. Already she has created literary festivals in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Anguilla, while continuing to staff book sales at conventions around the U.S. like 100 Blackmen of America and the Missouri Black Expo. She has kept Hue-Man Agency Services, her consulting business, which helps authors with public and media relations, a speaker’s bureau, and even ghostwriting. Closing the store “gives me flexibility,” Allen said. And she is beginning to get repeat customers who browse the store’s Web site for physical books and Kobo e-books.
800-CEO-READ carved out a place in the online space as a business retailer long before Hue-Man or most other indies even considered going online-only. In fact, when Milwaukee, Wis.–based regional chain Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops closed in 2009, the only piece that Carol Grossmeyer and Rebecca Schwartz held onto was 800-CEO-READ. Not only is it profitable, but general manager Jon Mueller said that 2012 sales were the second-highest in the company’s history, which dates back to 1995, when it became a separate division of the bookstore. 800-CEO-READ grew out of Jack Covert’s efforts to sell technical and business titles for the bookstore beginning in 1983; Covert later became president of the company.
Unlike most online bookstores, 800-CEO-READ, which has 13 employees, focuses on selling books in bulk for conferences and corporate events, as well as selling custom titles. When customers shop on the store’s Web site, they get discount pricing for purchasing anywhere between one and 500 copies of a given title. Purchases are reported to Nielsen BookScan and the New York Times, and they appear on 800-CEO-READ’s own bestseller list, which is nationally syndicated. Although much of the business is conducted online, Mueller noted, “We’ve been a service-focused business since we started, and spend each day talking to people in person, on the phone, and online about their book needs and how we can help them.”
Writer Vincent McCaffrey closed Boston’s Avenue Victor Hugo Books after a fire in 2004, but he has found selling online via AbeBooks and Biblio difficult—specifically, he had a hard time finding used books to sell. Where before people came to the store to sell their books, he now has to go to auctions. “In Boston, we just couldn’t buy all that was available,” he said. “Life as an online bookseller isn’t so bad. [But] I would open a bookstore if that was possible.” What makes it work for him is being able to write four hours a day.
Although McCaffrey is getting by as online seller, some used booksellers are doing significantly better. Pistil Books has been online-only (pistilbooks.net) for the past dozen years, after closing its new and used bookstore in Seattle’s Capitol Hill area in 2001. At the time, the store was already doing a third of its business on AbeBooks.com, according to co-owner Amy Candiotti, who started the store with Sean Carlson in 1993. “We have no plans to move back to a physical bookstore,” she said, noting that another bookstore in the neighborhood, Half-Price Books, is slated to close in June. Plus being online-only has its own rewards, she notes, including flexible scheduling and having more time to travel and to read.
Like Hue-Man, Pistil continues to maintain a neighborhood presence—albeit a much smaller one. It has book carts in the lobbies of Book-It Repertory Theatre and Annex Theatre and holds a summer book sale outdoors. It also buys books from Seattle locals and invites local customers to make an appointment to pick up books at its warehouse. Since switching to online-only, it has changed its inventory mix to focus on alternative building and energy, alternative/radical politics, vintage children’s library bindings, and period pop culture books like Andy Warhol’s Index Book. The store has also begun selling vintage books on hippie homesteading and cultural artifacts on Etsy. Candiotti said of the peer-to-peer site, “It’s more like having a retail store in the sense that images and browsing play an important part in getting our books noticed, and Etsy shoppers are supportive of independent businesses."