Last November, when Barnes & Noble announced that it was putting itself up for sale, Neil Van Uum’s bank called in the loan for his Joseph-Beth Booksellers chain. The ensuing bankruptcy has since wound down, but only after three of the six JoBeth stores closed—Charlotte, N.C.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Cleveland, Ohio—and the Davis-Kidd store in Nashville. Van Uum lost both the Joseph-Beth and Davis-Kidd names along with the Lexington and Cincinnati stores and a health clinic in Cleveland to his former landlord, Robert Langley, in auction; a fourth store in Virginia went to Books-A-Million. Instead of planning a 25th anniversary celebration for JoBeth, which he cofounded in 1986, Van Uum has spent the past six months since the bankruptcy was resolved renovating the only store in the chain that he kept, the former Davis-Kidd in Memphis, renamed the Booksellers at Laurelwood.
Van Uum went into the auction for Joseph-Beth only believing he would get back some of his stores, including the Memphis store. After the auction, he purchased the Memphis store with the assistance of Tom Prewitt, landlord of Laurelwood Shopping Center, from Gordon Brothers, who bid to liquidate it. “I couldn’t abide the situation, so I bought it,” he says. “There was no way to save the Nashville store. That was one of my regrets. My number one goal was to see the company and the stores survive. Obviously Joseph-Beth continues on, and I’m happy about that.”
Since the purchase of the Memphis store, Van Uum has sunk close to $500,000 into remodeling it—paint, carpeting, fixtures, and a complete overhaul of the restaurant into a bistro now known for its wines. Together with gifts, the Booksellers Bistro accounts for close to 40% of sales. The other 60% comes from books, including remainders and periodicals, especially children’s, which has been expanded. “The old girl looks awesome,” says Van Uum. “Our restaurant business is killing it.” And he’s planning to add an Espresso Book Machine, which he believes could be a key component of bookstores going forward.
Van Uum is also continuing to invest in his booksellers and the community. “It’s always been about the people. To me that’s what the key to the store is, booksellers,” says Van Uum, referring to the name he chose when he renamed it. The store has 15 booksellers on staff who have been there for more than a decade, with six of those at the store for more than 20 years. The Web site (www.thebooksellersatlaurelwood.com) is up and running, but it’s never been an important part of Van Uum’s business plan. He sees it as a place for gift cards and a themed selection of books. It also promotes author events and sells e-books.
“Do I wish I still had all those stores? No,” says Van Uum. “The trajectory of the book business is scary. At my core, I’m an entrepreneur. I love the challenges of being involved in the book business. But I fear for the large stores. The Joseph-Beth stores were 30,000 to 40,000 square feet. The store in Memphis is a little smaller, it’s 22,000.” Still, that hasn’t stopped him from looking at possible bookstore locations in Lexington and Cincinnati—or making plans for a second Booksellers Bistro in Memphis.
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