The Book Mark of Tucson, Ariz., the largest independent bookstore in the Southwest, will shut its doors on February 28. Located at 5001 East Speedway and occupying 9000 square feet, the store has been a thriving operation since 1958. It is the last of Tucson's nonspecialty independent bookstores. Coyote's Voice and the Haunted Bookshop both closed in the last two years.
Founded 40 years ago by Ed Eggers and Walter Emge, the Book Mark became famous throughout the region for its floor-to-ceiling stacks of books and its expert service, friendly staff and strong handselling techniques. The shelves house books by local authors, small presses and regional publishers. Though a general bookstore, it is particularly well-known for its children's books and expansive Southwestern and Native American sections.
In 1967, Eggers bought out Emge, and his sister, Inez Spohn, joined the business. When Eggers's health began to fail in 1989, they turned the business over to his nephews, Larry and Scott Spohn, and niece, Brenda Spohn Blanton. The store moved into larger quarters in 1990, increasing its title base to more than 150,000 and its staff to 17.
After the move, sales increased to more than $1.7 million. The same year, however, the first B&N went up two miles away. By 1997, a Borders and two other B&N stores had located in the city, and sales at the Book Mark declined -- dropping $500,000 in annual sales in the last three years alone.
Blanton and Larry Spohn tried to compete (they bought out nephew Scott Spohn in '92) by issuing discount cards, which gave customers a $10 gift certificate after spending $100 at the store. They discounted their bestsellers by 20%, and for a two-month period last summer even tried reducing the price of everything in the store by 10%.
"In the end, we couldn't fight the influx of the chains," Blanton told PW. "In 1998, we were down to $1.2 million and still trying to carry the same inventory." She continued, "We just saw our clientele drop. There is a Borders or B&N on every corner of the town. We can't compete with their discounts. What you're seeing is the death of the independent bookstore."
Last year, the owners successfully started selling used books -- but not at a sufficient volume to halt the overall falling sales. Blanton mused, "If we had begun three years ago with used books, we might have made a run for it."
The Book Mark has been lauded as Arizona's best literary bookstore, and writers as diverse as Larry McMurtry and Edward Abbey have spoken out or written in praise of the business.
In an article last week for the Arizona Daily Star, Barbara Kingsolver wrote, "I owe my career to people such as those at the Book Mark who first guided readers to my words. I think of them as family."
The store operated for decades without advertising or developing an inventory system and only computerized last year. It has now begun selling its entire inventory at a 10% discount and will increase the discounts until the store's closing.
Although it is too late to save the Book Mark, Spohn and Blanton have started a petition urging the city to regulate the number of chains that can set up business in the Tucson area. They've collected 600 names to date in an effort that Blanton said requires "getting back to basics and taking care of the independent bookseller."