With the ongoing consolidation of the distribution industry into a handful of major players, few in publishing were surprised when Forest Sales and Distributing, a book distributor outside New Orleans, announced in December that it was going out of business. “I was in New Orleans at a school book fair, and author Grace Millsaps was giving a reading and told me about it,” said John Cavalier, who, with his wife, Michelle Cavalier, runs Cavalier House Books, an independent bookstore in Denham Springs, La., outside Baton Rouge. “I called Rob, the owner of Forest, the next day and offered to buy the company’s intangible assets,” Cavalier added. As part of the deal, he ended up with Forest’s customer database and sales history.
Distribution was already in the Cavaliers’ background: they got their start in the business in 2005 working at Book Warehouse, a distribution company in Baton Rouge, while they were both studying at Southeastern Louisiana University. After Book Warehouse closed (and they graduated), the couple opened their bookstore.
“At the store, we have developed a strong business in school and institutional sales, and with our prior experience, moving into book distribution made sense,” said Cavalier, who, shortly after acquiring Forest’s database, launched the Looziana Book Company. The new venture offers specialized distribution for dozens of Louisiana’s small, midsize, and academic publishers, such as LSU Press and Pelican Publishing, plus some regional publishers based outside of Louisiana, such as the University of Mississippi Press.
“It’s been going great,” Cavalier said six months on. Forest Sales had been in business for 50 years and had extensive relationships across the state, as well as in Texas and Mississippi, and Looziana Book Company inherited many of the same customers. “Rob was generous enough that when an order came in from someone who didn’t know Forest had gone out of business, he would forward them to us,” Cavalier noted.
That said, the company is unlikely to survive if it follows the same path that ultimately led to Forest Sales’ demise. “The focus for us at the Looziana Book Company is connecting the dots between all these hyperlocal publishers and vendors,” Cavalier said. “That is where the real value lies. A lot of our bestsellers are titles that the Ingrams and B&Ts either don’t stock or have only in limited quantities, but that have demand in our region.”
Among the challenges the Cavaliers have faced so far is finding the time to tackle all of the administrative tasks required to run two businesses simultaneously with a relatively small staff, as well as building administrative and logistical systems that work in tandem with the bookstore’s preexisting systems. “For example, we use the ABA’s Indie Commerce platform for our online orders at the bookstore and are also using it for the B-to-B sales for the distribution company,” Cavalier said. “But most of the titles we distribute have never been uploaded onto the platform before, so we have to do them one at a time, which is very tedious.”
Another challenge is finding adequate warehousing for the books. “Right now we are working out of a storage unit—one that we had been using before to store books for school book fairs,” Cavalier said. “It’s a nice one, it’s climate controlled, but still—it’s a storage unit.”
Cavalier noted the company’s customers range from traditional bookstores, such as the Garden District Book Shop and Octavia Books in New Orleans, to large plantation houses, gift shops in New Orleans’s French Quarter, and even a steamboat that travels up and down the Mississippi River. But, he said, “most of our customers are situated along I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and Lafayette.”
To grow, Cavalier anticipates expanding north into more rural parts of the state, as well as into cities such as Munro, Rustin, and Shreveport. “These are relatively remote locations—places where it is not economically viable for publishers to market and have events, yet where a third of the state’s population lives. That’s a big opportunity for us.”