With the closing of Outwrite Books in Atlanta late last month and the impending closing of True Colors (formerly Amazon Bookstore Cooperative) in Minneapolis, some in bookselling circles have begun to question whether niche bookstores can survive. Twenty years ago, specialty stores were seen as a strategy to face the onslaught of the chains. “The niche has been completely our salvation,” says Richard Goldman, co-owner of 21-year-old Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa. “While it’s not a universal cure-all, it was key to our strategy.” Although many specialty bookstores have closed, others are finding success by shifting their focus, broadening their inventory, and adding more events. And some are growing. Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, Calif., opened a second location in Redondo Beach last fall; Idlewild Books in New York City added an outpost in Brooklyn last month; and A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wis., is moving to a new space in July, doubling in size.
Women’s bookstores could have served as the poster child for troubles with niches. After peaking at 120 in 1994, they have dwindled to just 10. But like many of their general bookstore brethren who benefited from customers shopping local and from the closing of hundreds of Borders stores, the survivors had double-digit increases in the fourth quarter of 2011 and are beginning to rebound. At Women & Children First in Chicago, sales rose 30% during the holidays and were up between 5% and 7% for the year. Sales at A Room of One’s Own were even stronger: up 50% over the holidays, 40% for the year. Owners of both stores insist that their viability hinges on redefining their mission as feminist booksellers in a changing culture.
“In order to survive, I have to be a general bookstore,” says Sandra Torkildsen of A Room of One’s Own, adding the caveat that her 37-year-old store will always specialize in feminist and GLBT titles. That’s part of what’s fueling the store’s expansion and merger with used book retailer Avol’s Books this summer. A Room of One’s Own will not only add more categories, but change its mix, from almost all new to 70/30 new and used. Thirty-three-year-old Women & Children First, which already carries a large inventory of children’s titles, is growing its children’s section this year and adding more sidelines. “It’s a broader mission,” says co-owner Linda Bubon. “But we don’t do anything antithetical.”
Like women’s bookstores, the number of GLBT bookstores has dropped significantly, with only about a half-dozen left since the closing of Outwrite and A Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco last April. Despite the challenges, the surviving GLBT bookstores are growing. Delaware’s two-year-old Rehoboth Beach Proud Bookstore added gifts, cards, music, videos, and Human Rights Campaign products to the inventory. “I had to diversify,” says owner Jocques LeClair. “I would have done $14 this week if I just had books.” His strategy is working. The store recently doubled in size to 1,800 sq. ft., and word-of-mouth is drawing in customers from as far away as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, which lost their GLBT bookstores in 2010 and 2008, respectively.
Sales at Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, the country’s oldest GLBT bookstore, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2013, were up 30% in December and 40% in January, according to owner Ed Hermance. He attributes the recent spike to a mild winter. Hermance controls payroll costs with the assistance of 10 longtime volunteers, who supplement the store’s four paid employees. He also owns the building.
Bricks-and-mortar science fiction specialty bookstores have more competition for customer loyalty. Not only do they compete with big-box stores and Amazon, but also with roughly 30 SF/fantasy online retailers. As a result, Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore in Minneapolis is selling more used than new titles. At Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, Mass., owner Tyler Stewart says that games have become even more important, while books are only about a third of the store’s inventory. Recently he purged eight shelves of used books that haven’t sold in two years.
However, Mysterious Galaxy has been going strong since its founding in 1993. Publicity manager Maryelizabeth Hart attributes the upward sales trajectory to the fact that the store established a loyal customer base early by dedicating itself to speculative fiction before J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer gave the genre greater visibility. Diversification has also helped. Today Mysterious Galaxy describes itself as a multigenre specialty store, with a large mystery selection.
“Having a niche makes all the difference,” says Susan Weis-Bohlen, owner of seven-year-old breathe books in Baltimore, which specializes in metaphysical and related sidelines. Rather than diversify, she chose a different path when sales began to falter. “I really needed help, and the bank had no interest in helping us,” she says. So she asked her customers to invest in the store. Some made outright donations, others chose to receive interest of 2%– 4% on their investment. As a third option, she asked customers to buy gift cards and put them away for a year. Almost two years later, not a single one has been redeemed.
In addition, Weis-Bohlen supplements books sales with classes and workshops. For classes with suggested donations of $5, the store frequently receives $20 or $30. Trips to sacred sites in India and South America have also been successful. “Booksellers aren’t taking advantage of their customers wanting to learn more from them. Our overseas trips have been lucrative,” she says. In fact, the combination of a nearly 10% sales increase over the holidays, and donations has put breathe on solid enough financial footing to consider opening a second storefront across the street, to be called breathe deep.
At 25-year-old New Renaissance Bookshop in Portland, Ore., events have become so key that co-owner Jamey Potter is considering adding them to the name: New Renaissance Books, Gifts & Events for Conscious Living. And he’s weighing adding a second dedicated event space so that he can run two events simultaneously. “The fastest growing part of our business is events, which had a 22% growth rate last year,” says Potter. “People are really hungry for the experiential, real person in front of you.”
From candles to women’s clothing and jewelry, gifts account for roughly 40% of New Renaissance’s sales. Nonbook items have also boosted sales at The Traveler in Bainbridge Island, a 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. The store does well with luggage and travel-friendly clothing, while books and maps comprise only about 30% of inventory. “One of the trends we’ve seen,” says co-owner Barbara Tolliver, “is that as travel agencies close, people are asking us the questions they would have asked a travel agent. We really are information specialists.” To keep up sales during the economic downturn and a sidewalk reconstruction project that kept the street torn up until the second week in December, the store hired a Web master and an events coordinator to set up author appearances and trunk shows. It definitely worked: sales were up 5% in 2011.
At Idlewild, owner David Del Vecchio relies on foreign language classes rather than sidelines to pick up the slack. “We were always interested in travel in the broad sense of the word. We’ve never sold only travel guides,” he says. “We sell the literature from those countries. The reason I founded the store was really to immerse people in the culture.” In addition to holding classes at its new location in Brooklyn, which sells only foreign-language titles, Idlewild will begin offering its first language classes for kids this spring.
Many mystery booksellers were forced to broaden their niche early on. The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Ariz., started as a crime bookseller in 1989 but moved into literary fiction a decade ago. While predominantly crime stores, both Mystery Lovers and Murder by the Book in Houston stock children’s books along with fiction titles that appeal to book clubs, such as Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Unlike other niches, mystery stores have embraced the Internet to spur growth. At a combo in-store/Skype event with Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child for Cold Vengeance last summer, Poisoned Pen sold 1,300 books; it also Web casts all its events to bring in more sales. Owner Barbara Peters says that mail order accounts for 70% of sales. While the figure is a bit smaller at Mystery Lovers, closer to 25%–30%, that’s still a much higher percentage than most independents.
Murder by the Book, which went with an IndieCommerce Web site in December, is one of the few niche stores to push e-books. Over the past month, Jordan says, the store has had 200 e-book orders, mostly for e-book exclusives like two Michael Connelly story collections.
While these specialties are only a small segment of the entire niche market, if the last quarter is any predictor of future growth, niche retailers should be well positioned to take advantage of a turnaround in the economy and could face more competition from other specialty stores. Just last month the Kansas City area got a second mystery bookstore when Acia Morley, a former employee of I Love a Mystery, which had originally been slated to close, opened Mysterscape with a partner. They had already signed a lease when I Love a Mystery got a reprieve.