When Borders liquidated at the end of 2011, it left many communities without a bookstore. Most independent booksellers were hesitant about leasing the smaller vacated stores, and shopping center owners were unwilling to carve up cavernous locations once occupied by the chain’s superstores, which were 20,000 sq. ft. and up. When it came to picking up former Borders customers, Amazon was the biggest winner.
Four years later, the bookselling landscape is changing once again. After several solid years, independents are looking at adding locations and taking back some of the physical bookshelf space that had been lost. Some are focusing on underserved towns where Borders once flourished, such as La Grange, Ill. Anderson’s Bookshops will open its third bookstore there on May 2, Independent Bookstore Day. Other stores, including Gottwals Books and its Walls of Books franchise, headquartered in Byron, Ga., are creating opportunities to encourage more would-be bookstore owners to give bookselling a try.
“Time needed to pass for the consumer, the landlord, and the bookstore market to figure out what should fill that space. It’s not another 20,000-sq.-ft. store, but maybe it’s two 4,000-sq.-ft. stores on different ends of town,” said Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books, which recently announced that it will open a third bookstore in the Seattle area.
In 2011, HugoBooks, with three stores in Massachusetts, opened a short-lived fourth location in a former Borders Express in Swampscott. That experience soured co-owner John Hugo on the midsized bookstores that originally constituted HugoBooks, which dates back 50 years to Hugo’s father founding the Spirit of ’76 Bookstore in Marblehead. “There are so many towns that want a bookstore,” said Hugo. “[But] they can’t support my dad’s old model of 3,000 sq. ft.”
Two years ago Hugo decided to experiment with shrinking the minichain’s Newburyport store, the Book Rack, from 3,000 to 900 sq. ft. He also brought in Atomic Cafe to share the remaining space and to promote foot traffic. Hugo found that the smaller store is more profitable. Now he’s about to test the concept in a slightly bigger space with a larger children’s section. This 1,200 sq. ft. store in Beverly, Cabot Street Books & Cards, which opens in May, will also be paired with an Atomic Cafe. “We’re trying to get the model right,” said Hugo. “I’m hoping we can do more of these. The stock is managed better because booksellers touch it and feel it within 10 ft. of their desk. The trick is traffic.”
In Washington, D.C., which was hit not only by the collapse of Borders but by the closure of the nine-store Olsson’s Books & Records local chain, Politics & Prose owner Bradley Graham said, “We’ve been barraged with offers over the last several years: to go into Union Station, Georgetown, Silver Spring, among others. But we are reluctant to do all that’s necessary for opening another new store.” Instead, P&P is partnering with local restaurant chain Busboys & Poets on five satellite stores, to be rolled out over the course of the year. On New Year’s Day, P&P opened its first location in the Brookland Busboys (as a store within a store). A second location opened on Valentine’s Day in Takoma.
The stores, which are co-branded P&P @ B&P, will carry roughly 6,000 titles, and Busboys has an events room in each restaurant that Graham plans to keep booked. “It’s a way to expand without the hassle of leases,” he explained. “We realize there are risks, that some locations will do better than others. Having several good years behind us, we’re certainly more willing [to expand]. But, hey, margins in this business are still narrow. So we’re not going to take any crazy chances.”
Seven years ago, Shane Gottwals opened his first used bookstore, Gottwals Books, in Warner Robins, Ga. After being approached by a franchiser, Gottwals decided to create his own franchise operation under the Walls of Books name, starting with one in Tifton in 2012. To date, he has opened four Gottwals stores in Georgia and four Walls of Books in other states. At present he has five stores’ worth of inventory in his warehouse and plans to use it to open another five to 10 more Walls of Books over the next 12 months.
“I see this as a prime time for opening bookstores. With used books, our margins are strong, and we can have as good a selection as a chain bookstore,” said Gottwals, who has been encouraged by sales at the newly opened Walls of Books in Zanesville, Ohio. Its first day beat the single-day sales record system wide.
Gottwals continues to tweak his franchise model. He is no longer opening any Gottwals Books stores. Instead, he used the Walls of Books name for the store the company opened earlier this month in Spring Hill, Fla., where Book Fair had been located for three decades. He plans to sell it to a franchisee. As similar opportunities arise, Gotwalls Books will make the purchase and then seek out a buyer.
For some stores, expansion is less about new models than creating new opportunities for growth. That’s the case for the country’s largest indie chain, 117-store Half Price Books, headquartered in Dallas. “We move slowly. We don’t have any debt. Slow and steady,” said chief strategy officer Kathy Doyle Thomas, describing the chain’s progress across the country. Half Price has recently begun scouting locations in Philadelphia, which Thomas sees as “a segue into the Northeast.” Up to now the farthest east that Half Price has gone is Pittsburgh. The chain has also been eyeing the Southeast, where it will open its first store in Atlanta this summer. New store openings in June and July are also slated for Dallas/Ft. Worth, Sacramento, and Columbus.
Across the country, Third Place Books will open its own third place in Seattle’s Seward Park on Thanksgiving. The new location will have a similar footprint as its Ravenna store: a 3,500-sq.-ft. bookstore combined with a restaurant, pub, and cafe. “We’re really trying to create a whole environment, where there are multiple reasons to come to the site,” said Sindelar. The new store will provide a similar “neighborhood feel” with a multigenerational customer base.
“For us, we want to be in established downtown areas where there’s foot traffic, restaurants, and certain stores,” said Anderson’s owner Becky Anderson, explaining the decision to move into a 6,500-sq.-ft. space in La Grange, an indie-business stronghold. Many in the community are already familiar with the Anderson name, because of the company’s school book fairs and authors-in-schools programs it runs there. Anderson is also working on off-site events in the weeks leading up to the store opening, including one with Captain Underpants author Dav Pilkey in March. And the new store has one more potential edge in today’s market: in a year or two, it could have the opportunity to add another 1,500 sq. ft., which will give it room for a café.
Soon Phoenix Books will also have three locations. The store, which opened in Essex, Vt., in 2007, added a second outlet in Burlington and is now readying a 2,500-sq.-ft. store in Rutland, across from a children’s discovery museum. “I hope this is just the first of several [stores] we can put in other towns in Vermont,” said owner Michael DeSanto. “We rushed into Burlington after Borders closed, and we have no regrets. We did solid in 2014.”
What has distinguished Phoenix Books Burlington, and now Rutland, is the way DeSanto and his wife, Renée Reiner, have financed their stores by using a “community-supported enterprise” model. Investors prepurchase books in $1,000 increments. They can also make a financial investment in the company that can be paid back after five years, or plowed back into the business. By the end of January, Green Mountain Power, which approached DeSanto to open the Rutland store, had already received 50 pledges for $1,000 pre-buys from local businesses and residents, or $50,000.
And new stores just keep coming, such as Savoy Books and Cafe, which will open on July 1 in Westerly, R.I., former home of Other Tiger, which closed last year. The 2,500-sq. ft. store will occupy two floors of the former Hotel Savoy. It is the second store for Annie Philbrick and Patience Banister, owners of Bank Square Books in nearby Mystic, Ct., who want this to be a “serious” independent bookstore.