Total sales for the nation's four largest bookstore chains rose 9.8%, to $1.35 billion, for the third quarter ended October 31. The increase in the most recent period continues a trend of slowing growth at the major chains; growth in last year's third quarter was 14.5%, while growth in this year's second quarter was 10.7%.

A major factor in the slowing growth rate has been the decline at Barnes &Noble, where total sales increased only 9.6%, compared to a 15.4% gain in the third quarter in fiscal 1998. B&N has cut back on its new store openings in the current year to devote its resources to expanding its e-commerce site, barnesandnoble. com.

Another factor contributing to the slowing growth of the chains is Crown Books' bankruptcy. Crown sales in the third quarter fell 40.5%, to $39.1 million, attributed to the reduction in stores from 174 in last year's third quarter to 79 in the most recent period, as well as to a 9.5% decline in comparable-store sales. Crown said the drop in same-store sales was due to interruptions in the flow of merchandise because of liquidity problems, lack of a comparable marketing program, additional competition and the effect of adverse bankruptcy publicity.

The Borders Group had the largest sales growth in the third quarter, with total sales up 17%, to $558.3 million. The sales gain at the company was led by a 24.5% increase in superstore sales because of the opening of 25 new outlets (including several in the U.K.) in the period, plus an increase of 3.6% in comparable-store sales at the superstores. Sales at Waldenbooks fell 3.5%, reflecting a 1.5% decline in comparable-store sales, as well as the reduction in Walden outlets from 927 to 896.

Sales at Books-A-Million rose 10.3% in the third quarter due entirely to new store openings; comparable-store sales fell 3.3% in the period. After the close of the quarter, BAM announced that it had agreed to acquire NetCentral, an Internet development and services company that had designed BAM's enhanced Web site.

For the nine-month period ended October 31, total sales from the major chains increased 11.2%, to $4.06 billion, compared to a 15% gain in the same period in fiscal 1998.