One year almost to the day after the Borders Group closed their last remaining stores on Sept. 18, 2011, another Michigan-based book retailer, Schuler Books & Music, will mark their 30th year selling books. Founded in a 7,000-square-foot retail space by Bill and Cecile Fehsenfeld on Sept. 23, 1982, there currently are five Schuler stores dotting southwestern and central Michigan: three stores in Grand Rapids and its environs, and two in the Lansing area. Altogether, the stores total 115,000 square feet of retail space, with an inventory of approximately 100,000 titles. The warehouse and office space at their flagship store in Grand Rapids adds another 10,000 square feet.
True to form, Schuler will celebrate its anniversary by focusing on books and authors. The store will mark its anniversary by holding a sale at all five locations the weekend of Sept. 29-30, and about a dozen authors will visit the stores throughout the month. September events will feature such authors as Mitch Albom, Chris Cleave, Debbie Macomber, Tasha Alexander, and Cory Doctorow.
“It’s been quite a year,” noted Cecile Fehsenfeld, and not just because the store is preparing to celebrate this important milestone, but also because of the decline and fall of the Borders Group. While there were no closings of Borders stores near Schuler locations affecting sales or bringing in new customers, Borders’s troubles had a significant impact on Schuler's internal operations. According to Fehsenfeld, Schuler had ordered books through Borders’ wholesaling division since 1982, one of approximately 16 bookstores nation-wide that did so at the time. While these other bookstores long ago moved away from Borders towards other wholesalers, Schuler continued to order books through Borders through 2010.
“It was more economical for us to use their wholesaling division, because they were in Michigan,” Fehsenfeld explained, disclosing that Schuler executives began their preparations to change over the company's inventory management system after they “saw the writing on the wall” about three years ago.
“We had to create a full-fledged buying department with all the IT support we needed,” she recalled, “We have our sea legs now, but it was quite a transition. Everyone came together and did this unbelievable job with the transition in an economy that was not good, and we pulled it off. We came out the other end looking pretty good.”
Schuler is used to adapting quickly to changes in the bookselling industry, though; Fehsenfeld claims that flexibility, along with their 225 dedicated employees, is the secret to their longevity.
“We started out as purists,” she recalls, “We didn’t even have greeting cards.” Today, print books account for close to 70% of their total sales, not counting sales in the cafes housed in each store. Besides print books and e-books, which account for 1% of book sales, Schuler now sells used books, music, CDs, DVDs, and sidelines. When music, CD, and DVD sales dropped by two-thirds about two years ago, Schuler began selling old films at a discount.
“We can hardly keep them in stock,” Fehsenfeld said, explaining that her customers want hard copies of old movies even as they digitalize in other areas.
Schuler has also launched its own publishing imprint, Chapbook Press, since acquiring an Espresso Book Machine about two years ago. The store offers editing services and prints books for a fee under the Chapbook imprint for self-publishers, “from as few as 20 copies to several thousand, depending on who it is and what they want it for.” Books published under the Chapbook imprint are sold in-store and on their website if the author so wishes.
To date, there are 40-50 titles in a variety of genres published under the Chapbook imprint. Bestsellers include Garbio: Stories of Chicago, Its Garbage, and the Dutchmen Who Picked It Up by Larry Van der Leest, which has sold “hundreds” of copies, and Asylum Lake by R.A. Evans selling “thousands” of copies in Schuler stores and elsewhere.
While Fehsenfeld declined to disclose the chain’s revenues, she says that sales this year “company-wide are slightly up, in the single digits.” And, she adds, “that’s good.”