While some of the country's most high-profile regional chain bookstores and national chain bookstores have downsized in response to increased competition, a weak economy, and changes in readers' buying patterns, an independent regional bookstore chain headquartered in central Wisconsin has quietly thrived for almost 35 years in the northernmost reaches of the Upper Midwest and continues to buck the trend. Book World isn't just holding its own, it's expanding its reach southward by opening new stores in Iowa and Illinois—in locations that previously housed outlets of national chain bookstores.
There are, to date, 46 Book World stores in five states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa. Book World's first Iowa location opened in Clinton in 2009, followed by a second store in Mason City in May 2010, in a retail space that previously held a B. Dalton that closed in January 2010. A third store in Iowa is scheduled to open in early 2011 in Ft. Dodge, also in a former Dalton location. The first Book World in Illinois, in Galena, opened in 2006, with a second opening this past August in Sterling, in a former Waldenbooks space.
Book World stores average approximately 3,000 square feet, and every store is located in a town or city far from major metropolitan areas. The 25 Wisconsin locations are all located at least an hour's drive north of Milwaukee and Madison, with half a dozen of them in the state's northwoods region. The nine Minnesota stores are all located at least an hour's drive west or south of the Twin Cities, and the two Illinois locations at least a two-hour drive west of Chicagoland. Four of the five Michigan stores are located in the remote Upper Peninsula, with the fifth in northwest Michigan. The two Iowa locations are in small towns off of major interstate highways.
Book World is a family-run business currently owned by Bill Streur, who opened the first store in Rhinelander, Wis., in 1976. Streur, whose family also owns the BPDI Corp., a book and magazine wholesaler founded in 1954, is extremely closemouthed and press shy. A request by PW to interview a company representative was declined, leading one longtime publisher's rep who calls on them to explain, "They don't look for attention or praise. They just want to do their own thing." While each location has its own membership in the Midwest Booksellers Association, store personnel do not attend that annual trade show. Besides corporate headquarters in Appleton, Wis., two bookstores in the chain hold memberships in the American Booksellers Association, including the Rhinelander store.
A recent visit by PW to the Book World location in rural Hayward, Wis. (pop. 2,129), 75 miles from the nearest big box store or chain bookstore and 350 miles north of Milwaukee, confirmed that this is a company that does not follow current trends in its business model, though it does maintain a Web site where customers can order 1.5 million books and magazines; no e-books are offered on the site.
In a 2,000-square-foot space in Hayward's downtown, the store, one of the chain's smallest, consists of four narrow aisles, the shelves on each side filled with books organized in a variety of clearly defined categories, with bestsellers face out. Titles seemed evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction, with an assortment of hardcover, trade paper, and mass market paper, as well as audiobooks. There were extensive children's and YA sections, and the entire left wall displayed approximately 1,200 magazine titles. The right wall included a small but obviously carefully chosen selection of regional titles, from local self-publishers as well as the larger houses.
With its bright lighting and lack of seating (and cafe), Book World is a place that encourages both locals and tourists wanting to pick up a bestseller, recent release, or just a fun read to make their selections quickly and leave; it's not conducive to leisurely browsing for some undiscovered gem from a small literary press. Its current bestsellers list mimics national ones, with John Grisham's Confession tops in fiction, while nonfiction is led by two politically polar opposite authors—Glenn Beck (Broke) and Jon Stewart (Earth (the Book)).
"They intimately understand the Upper Midwest market of smalltown Main Street America that marketers and politicians mythologize but don't really understand except as a Disney World confection," said Alex Genis, a Penguin Group sales rep based in Minneapolis, who calls on Streur at Book World and at BPDI. "They have firm parameters of what they can sell, and don't waste their time on extraneous books, products, and vendors."
Update: A previous version of this story misstated the relationship between BPDI Corporation and Book World, Inc. and has been corrected.