Considering that in 1967 Don Barliant bought a four-year-old Chicago bookstore largely to provide some “diversion” from his day job as a practicing attorney, he's done pretty well for himself in one of the most competitive bookselling markets in the country. Barliant's evolution from neophyte to seasoned bookseller is even more impressive since, in the four decades since Barliant bought Barbara's Bookstore from its founder, Barbara Siegel, he has deftly constructed a solid bookstore empire, while many other well-known Windy City booksellers have closed their doors.
The primary reason a lawyer with no previous bookselling experience would succeed in Chicago's hardscrabble retail market is because Barliant's always thought beyond the standard bookstore formula in calculating how to bring readers and his books together. “There's nothing as pleasant as browsing in a bookstore,” Barliant explains. “But a lot of people don't go to bookstores.”
Though he closed the original Barbara's location in the Old Town neighborhood in 2004, Barliant has slowly but steadily expanded his company with a mix of conventional storefronts ranging in size between 6,000 and 9,000 square feet, as well as more compact locations inside landmark buildings. There are currently 13 Barbara's Bookstore locations: four in downtown Chicago; two in inner-ring suburbs; six operated for the past year in partnership with the Hudson Group at O'Hare International airport; and one way east, a 417-sq.-ft. space at Boston's South Station for train travel. Besides the 9,000-sq.-ft. flagship store adjacent to the University of Illinois—Chicago campus southwest of the Loop, the downtown Chicago locations include one in the Sears Tower; another in Northwestern Memorial Hospital; and the book department at Macy's on State Street. While Barliant closed the short-lived airport stores at LaGuardia in New York City and in Philadelphia International in 2007, he is in discussions with Northwestern Memorial to open a second location, “a kiosk-like bookstore,” inside the facility.
“Retail bookselling, over the last several years, requires us to find the niches, the nooks, the crannies,” Barliant says. “What we're trying to do is to bring books to people where they are, rather than waiting for our customers to come in through the door.” Not only does Barbara's sell books at its stores, but the regional chain also sells books to nonbook retailers, some of them far beyond Chicago. For instance, while the book section at Macy's on State Street is a dedicated Barbara's store within that department store, Barbara's also sells books directly to Macy's Inc. for sale in other departments in that store location, as well as in other Macy's stores around the country that may want to have books included in store displays. “For everything that Macy's sells,” Barliant notes, “there's a book explaining the product—like selling wedding books in the wedding department.”
Barbara's also has been successful in handling sales of books at select Macy's stores that are hosting special events. Last winter, Barbara's handled children's book sales for Macy's in downtown Minneapolis for six weeks, next to the store's famed interior holiday display: it sold 9,000 copies of the 40 titles offered.
While Barliant and his wife, Janet Bailey, Barbara's lead buyer, have postponed their plans to launch an online store selling children's books, he's still looking for ways to take advantage of current trends to enhance his bricks-and-mortar business. Thus, Barbara's is launching a Planet Earth department in the Glen View, Ill., store, where an endless loop of the Planet Earth Discovery TV series will air on high-definition televisions visible throughout the store. The TV will be surrounded with displays featuring adult and children's books on the environment, as well as products having to do with green living. The department's stock will also include Lonely Planet publications.
Over its life span, Barbara's has played a role in launching the careers of booksellers and publishers. PW's current Booksellers of the Year, Michael Boggs and Carol Besse, met while working at Barbara's, and the store's publishing alumni include Bill Shinker, publisher of Gotham Books. While publishing and bookselling have changed dramatically since Barliant rather impulsively decided to buy a bookstore, one thing has remained constant: “There is nothing more fun for a bookseller than to sell books,” he says. “We'll always be in the printed book business for as long as we're around.”