Even before the demise of Borders, the trend of opening superstores was waning, and new bookstores were getting smaller and cozier (many were in the 3,000 to 5,000 sq. ft. range). But some bookstores, particularly in urban areas and at upscale malls, are giving meaning to the term “small business.” The cost of real estate has led a few new booksellers to opt for diminutive spaces, as tiny as 200 sq. ft. or less. At least one small store, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop (the country’s oldest poetry-only bookstore), has existed for 86 years, and counting, in the same 400 sq. ft. location in Cambridge, Mass. By finding ways to survive despite their size, today’s tiniest shops could suggest a way forward for bricks-and-mortar stores in a digital age on the cusp of instant book delivery by drone. As Melissa Richmond, proprietress of Bibliohead, a 700 sq. ft., mostly used bookstore in San Francisco pointed out, “There’s something about being right-sized. If you’re smaller, you’re nimbler—more able to cope with the ups and downs of the book business.”
“One of the cool things about having a small store is that people can see everything,” added Richmond, whose background includes stints at several large bookstores, including the now-defunct Lauriat’s chain in New England. Certainly that’s the case for the 100 sq. ft. Hullabaloo Books, which opened at the end of September in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and can accommodate roughly eight customers at a time, or the 200 sq. ft. Chapter Two, which opened in early November in Dallas’s exclusive Highland Park Village mall. Both microstores have had to be especially creative about design, selection, and display.
Chapter Two owner Brian Bolke said that he considered creating a book nook in his organic cafe, Chapter One, but decided that there was enough space for a separate bookstore. It works, he said, because the bookshop is connected to the cafe and the two share the same checkout area. Bolke has long included books in the product mix at his main retail store, Forty Five Ten, which sells $500, high-end lifestyle books. He said that the cafe started out with some fashion and lifestyle titles, but then added food titles: “They sold like crazy—we were shocked.”
Although Chapter Two has the ambience of a small Taschen or Rizzoli store, Bolke has culled 180 midpriced hardcovers, which are stacked horizontally so that they stand out as objects. He sees the store as a place where customers can find just the right gift books. “People are always searching for the perfect gift,” he said. “It’s really hard to find a gift that isn’t a candle in the $40-$75 price range. I love the idea that [the recipient] knows that you had to go and look at all the books and decide.”
Hullabaloo was designed with a different audience in mind—a hipper customer who would enjoy browsing its combination of new and used titles in fiction, poetry, architecture, food, creative nonfiction, and graphic novels. “I know nothing about book publishing. I had qualified folks curate each section,” explained owner Michael de Zayas. His goal is to break even, since he has what he described as two “real” businesses nearby: the Little Zelda coffee shop and the Wedge cheese shop. To cut costs, de Zayas relies on volunteers to run the store when he’s at one of his other businesses.
Barbara’s Bookstore, headquartered in Chicago, operates smaller stores in a number of different locations: five stores at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, in partnership with the Hudson Group; a 300 sq. ft. store, scaled down from 417 sq. ft., that is about to reopen in Boston’s South Station; an 850 sq. ft. store in Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago; along with a number of other stores, including dozens of ministores at Macy’s across the country. For Barbara’s co-owner Don Barliant, the outlets “are businesses, not a hobby. They have to stand on their own. The trick is trying to cram in as many square feet of books as you can.” He said that owners of small businesses (small in the physical sense) have to focus on replenishment and good inventory control. “It’s not a library,” he noted. “But if you really have the systems and the right designs, you can satisfy most customers.”
Robin Theiss recently opened a store called StL Books in St. Louis, Mo., with just over 700 sq. ft. of selling space. In spite of the shop’s small stature, the owner has big aspirations: “Our store is modeled after Powell’s [in Portland, Ore.], with new books and used side by side.” StL is one of the few stores to try to make the transition from online-only to bricks-and-mortar. After eight years of selling books via stlbooks.com, Theiss said that low-priced used titles from competing sellers on Amazon and elsewhere were cutting into her profits. Although the site is still up, Theiss is in the midst of shifting her online inventory to match that of her bricks-and-mortar store. “The customers for online are different than the customers in the store,” Theiss observed. “Online we can sell obscure nonfiction books, how-tos, and collectibles.” In the store, she does better with children’s and adult fiction, and the arts.
Grolier is in the midst of a transition, too. Nigerian poet and philosophy professor Ifeanyi Menkiti, who purchased the store in 2006, is turning it into a nonprofit cultural center. Over the past seven years he has added more events and created a publishing venture. “In the old days, the idea was that book sales would support the culture work,” said Menkiti, who has had to dip into his pocket to keep the store afloat. “Here, because of the literary and cultural expectations, you can’t close [the store]. You’ve got to keep this thing going. The bookshop has to be part and parcel of the cultural obligation.” Menkiti is determined to continue Grolier’s mission as a cultural institution—one that is recognized in a new book coming out next year by historian Michael Hein on the role of the Grolier in American culture.
Today’s tiny bookstores run the gamut from cultural institutions to mini–general bookstores and gift shops. The one thing that each owner shares is a passion for books and a determination to find a way to make their stores work, no matter how small the space.