Temporary stores with leases of less than a year have long been a cost-effective way to promote brands, test locations, and increase a store’s reach, particularly at peak shopping times like Halloween and Christmas. In fact, demand has grown so strong in recent years that in 2009 Christina Norsig set up the first online exchange for temporary real estate, PopUpInsider.com, and just self-published a how-to primer, Pop-Up Retail.
Chains like Toys R Us, which more than doubled its outlets last year by opening 600 temporary holiday stores, have fueled today’s pop-up phenomenon. So have retailers like Calendar Club, which purchased Borders’s seasonal calendar business, Day by Day Calendar Company, for $9.2 million in January, and has built a business based on temporary stores. Last year, pop-up sales reached $8 billion in the U.S., according to a report by Patricia Norins, publisher of Specialty Retail Report, with data from Alexander Babbage. Temporary store sales rose 117% during the 2010 holiday shopping season over the previous year.
This year, with the closing of Borders leaving thousands of square feet of real estate vacant, bookstore owners and other individuals are opening pop-up stores to take advantage of temporary bookselling opportunities.
Pop-up operators A&S Booksellers and Calendar Club are permanent temporary store owners, and as such will likely benefit the most from Borders abandoned space. Over the past 16 years, A&S president Andy Weiss has opened more than 300 temporary bargain bookstores, primarily in the San Diego area, under the A&S brand. He also operates a Halloween business and opened 12 RIP Halloween stores this year. In 2001, when Crown Books went bankrupt, Weiss purchased its name and now brands his pop-up bookstores as Crown Books. By mid-November Weiss will have nine Crown stores, including some in Borders locations, including Mission Viejo and the Santa Anita Mall, both in California. The stores carry books discounted by 50% or more; the categories that work best are children’s, mysteries, parenting, and calendars. “For me going into a Borders site, the customers still think it’s a Borders. So there’s book traffic walking in,” says Weiss. He also finds Borders stores easy to turn into a Crown. “We can walk into a Borders and open it in six to eight days,” explains Weiss. The only drawback is customers looking for new books; he sends them to Barnes & Noble.
As for 18-year-old Calendar Club, which was formerly affiliated with Barnes & Noble until president and CEO Marc Winkelman bought it back in 2009, by the middle of this month it will have 925 Go! Calendar locations and 300 Go! Toy and Go! Game stores, as well as its first six remainder bookexpress bookstores. Of the calendar stores, about 350 will be from Borders’s Day by Day brand out of the 417 stores at the time of the purchase. The reason for the difference, says Winkelman, is that “a lot of malls are not as good as they once were. To open a store and do substandard business is not worthwhile.” Calendar Club will also be in several other Borders locations, including San Francisco and Boise, Idaho, which will feature a quadruple combo of books, calendars, games, and toys.
While some industry reports indicate a weakening in the calendar business, Winkelman says, “Our calendar sales were up a bit last year. From our perspective, they will be up again this year.” Winkelman, who is CEO of Kirkus Reviews and has a minority stake in the Tecolote Book Shop in the Santa Barbara community of Montecito, Calif., also sees strong potential book sales. “There’s lots of opportunity,” he says, “because there’s a void in the marketplace. A lot of malls and downtowns would like a bookstore, and a lot of people still want to own a book.”
Jodi Morrison’s Fleeting Pages, which opened in May for one month, was not only one of the first bookstore pop-ups in a closed Borders, a 24,000-sq.-ft. store in Pittsburgh, but also one of the first to capture the zeitgeist of the times: independents rising up in an abandoned chain store. “For me, it was very particularly about that space and the culture shift in bookstores,” says Morrison, who had originally planned to open a pop-up a year and a half earlier in a Barnes & Noble. Although Fleeting Pages didn’t break even, Morrison says it was successful in promoting other local bookstores—each had a separate section in the store—and independent presses. The store’s bestseller was an 84-page self-published book by local author Eric Lidji, How the Room Came to Smell Like a Rose.
Although Morrison said “no” to a developer who wanted her to open a similar store in Atlanta, Fleeting Pages has spawned other temporary offerings, including a two-day Chicago Book Expo (November 19–20, 2011) being produced by Chicago Writers House and Uptown United. It will bring together 40 independent presses under one roof in a former Borders. A Preface Reading Series will be held the week leading up to the expo.
While some bookstore pop-ups are focused on filling a perceived need in the community, others, like Ed’s Martian Book, are all about branding. In April, Andrew Kessler launched a six-week bookstore in New York City for a single title, his own Martian Summer (Pegasus), based on his observations of the 2009 Mars Lander mission. “I knew that as a first-time author, it’s hard to get visibility,” says Kessler, who wanted to give the space a neighborhood bookstore feel, hence the name. “It was a lot cheaper than taking out an ad in the New York Times and a lot more people saw it.” To his surprise, the store also came close to breaking even.
Earlier this month, Kessler capitalized on that experience and served as creative director for Aaron Shapiro’s pop-up launch for his book Users, Not Customers (Portfolio) in New York City. Over the course of three days, Shapiro sold books from carts staffed by former Borders employees. The carts had visible Borders logos with the Twitter hashtag “#is your business next” in big letters to underscore his message that companies can’t survive without a digital strategy. Billboards with the Borders logo partially obscured by Amazon.com made a similar point.
Cross-promotion can also be a driving factor behind temporary stores. That’s part of the reasoning behind Village Books owners Chuck and Dee Robinson’s decision to open a holiday store at the Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham, Wash., last month. “Business has been slow, but no slower than we expected for October,” says Chuck Robinson, who expects it to pick up now that the weather has changed. “We’ve been able to talk with lots of folks about our store in Fairhaven; many of them were unfamiliar with it. So the store is cross-marketing our main store.”
In approaching Boyle Heights lending library/bookstore Libros Schmibros about a possible collaboration with the Hammer Museum in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, the opportunity for cross-marketing between East and West was one of the advantages that Allison Agsten, curator of the museum’s Public Engagement program, had in mind for recreating Libros Schmibros in a 540-sq.-ft.-gallery. The Libros Schmibros pop-up, which closed November 5, was also a way to make up for the closing of several Westwood bookstores and reduced hours at nearby libraries. Although the Hammer Museum has its own bookstore, that didn’t prevent Agsten from moving forward. “It’s not the same books you’d find upstairs in our store,” says Agsten, adding that it’s been “a really fruitful collaboration.”
As part of the cross-promotion, Agsten collected 200 art books from her museum colleagues to help Libros Schmibros develop an art book collection for its main store. Keeping the two Libros Schmibros stores open with a staff of two and two volunteers wasn’t always easy. “It’s like living a medical residency,” says bookstore co-director Colleen Jaurretche. “Because we’re new and small, we don’t have an inventory system, we do our cataloguing by hand, and our checkouts by hand.” Still, she and bookstore founder David Kipen, former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts, not only made it work but found a new location for the Boyle Heights store at the same time.
In the past few years, both Taschen and Phaidon Press have experimented with temporary New York City locations and subsequently signed long-term leases. But when Seven Stories managing editor Veronica Liu launched a bookstore/community center in her Washington Heights neighborhood to support local presses and authors, she didn’t originally think about making it permanent. Her original impetus was to serve the community. “For a neighborhood that big, that full of kids, it seems preposterous that it doesn’t have a bookstore,” she says.
With help from Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, Liu opened Word Up within four days of getting the key to the space on June 13. The monthlong project has since grown, and the landlord extended the lease on upper Broadway until the end of November. Now a collective of volunteers is meeting to figure out how to make the store permanent. In addition to providing new books, affordable used books ($5 or less), and books in Russian and Spanish, Word Up offers a strong selection of small press titles. One of the store’s bestsellers is the Spanish-language edition of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (La Otra Historia de los Estados Unitos). ■