When news broke last week that owner Neil Van Uum was going to close Memphis’s venerable independent bookstore Booksellers at Laurelwood, Emmett Miscall was shaken. A senior at nearby White Station High School, Miscall said he’d been shopping at that store since he was a four-year-old. “It was a real ‘third’ place for me,” he told PW. “I probably spend two or three days a week there, and finding out that it was going to close hit me pretty hard.”
In response, Miscall launched a Change.org petition as a rallying cry to keep the store open; as of Tuesday morning, it had garnered 2,175 signatures. The petition is to be delivered to Van Uum, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, as well as those responsible for the store’s lease.
Miscall also launched a GoFundMe campaign in an attempt to raise $50,000, but was asked to suspend the campaign by Booksellers, as it is unclear what the store would do with any money raised should it still have to close.
“This is all fine and well,” Van Uum told PW, “but the fact of the matter is that we looked at this situation for the last two years and the business reality is that we are losing sales steadily and the rent is too high. The landlords are unwilling to work with me to find a solution and there are obviously business realities.”
At approximately 20,000 sq.-ft., the store—which was originally part of the David-Kidd chain and later a Joseph Beth outlet—generates some $5 million in sales annually, but it has been losing money at a rate of $50,000 a year. "With all the other ways to get books, sales were slowing," said Van Uum, who has been a bookseller for more than 30 years, and also runs Booksellers stores in Cincinnati and Dayton. "We expanded heavily into all kinds of sidelines, particularly in children's education, but a sideline sale can't replace a book sale in terms of velocity or relevance."
Ultimately, “it all comes down to metrics,” said Van Uum. “Since we don’t set our prices and with margins the way they are, you have to set your rent at 8% of income—ideally—and 10% at most. Our Memphis rent has crept up to 12%. Now, if could have raised my book prices 4%—something I know the customers wouldn’t have complained about—we could have stayed open. But the metrics are the metrics.”
Van Uum noted that his Cincinnati store, which is 9,500 sq.-ft., is growing year-on-year. “I think with all the pressures we face, the age of the big independent bookstore is over. With a smaller store, you reduced the risk of shoplifting—which was a big challenge for us in Memphis—you reduce the need for staff, as well as the risk of filling up the store with non-book items. You can keep it as a proper bookstore.”
While Van Uum says that “something might happen” to keep the store open, he’s not banking on it. “When the news hit and was on the front page of the newspaper here two days in a row, I ended up meeting with two groups of potential investors. I showed them the numbers and told them I have $940,000 in inventory…then I asked them if they had a million dollars to put into the store. They all replied, ‘Oh, I didn’t think it would take that kind of money….’” At present, Van Uum has no timetable when the store will be closed.
The closing of the store will be lamented not only by local book buyers, but by many of the booksellers who have committed decades to working in the store. The store’s general manager, Eddie Burton, told PW last Thursday: "It has been an emotional [time]. We are a strong presence here in this town and community, I have been here for 32 years myself and we have catered to three generations of Memphis book buyers. Many booksellers have had long careers here—most have an average tenure of ten years at the store. It’s a real community feel here, and the customers and the booksellers get to know each other really well. People are expressing a lot of goodwill and sympathy and hoping and praying that we can reincarnate.”