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Indies Adding Second Stores
Diana Wells -- 2/21/00
Serendipity or salvation? Several independents discuss owning and operating a second location

A number of prominent independent bookstores across the country have recently opened second locations, prompting further speculation about the "comeback" of the independent. Whether or not this trend can be seen as an indication of better times ahead for indies, a closer look at a few particular cases reveals some striking similarities in motivation and logistics. Interestingly, none of the stores contacted by PW had planned on opening additional locations until an unexpected opportunity presented itself that was just too good to pass up. Though some started from scratch and others purchased already existing stores, embarking on a second store requires the owner to be an optimist and something of a fortuneteller, able to predict trends accurately and adjust quickly -- not to mention the ability to be in two places at once.

Brookline Booksmith
Located in Brookline, Mass., on the outskirts of Boston, and founded in 1961, Booksmith is one of the oldest and most successful general independent bookstores in the northeast. Co-owner Dana Brigham admits that last summer, when a local wholesaler first suggested she take over the space formerly inhabited by Lauriat's in nearby Wellesley, it "felt like sheer madness to open a second location."

Though she was initially skeptical, she explained, "We've gone through what most indies have gone through in terms of competition from chains. We don't feel that we have survived, but that we are surviving -- it is a constant, ongoing story." After much debate, she and her two partners decided to bid for the lease, concluding that the "supportive customer base and community involvement of the Brookline store" could be replicated. The Wellesley Booksmith opened in October 1999.

Though the focus and book selection of the two stores are similar, the communities where they are situated are vastly different. Brookline has a population of about 60,000 that, due to its proximity to Boston, is urban and diverse. Wellesley is an affluent, residential suburban town -- population 20,000 -- with an academic air. Although it will take some time for the new store to develop its own personality and sales trends, Brigham said she is seeing much stronger hardcover sales there, along with higher sales of art, photography and architecture books. For now, buying is done centrally from the Brookline store, but that may change as the new store evolves. The computer systems are not linked, though the buyers can dial into the Wellesley store's system and get sales and inventory information.

There are definitely benefits to leasing a space already set up as a bookstore, Brigham told PW. Lauriat's had renovated the 3,400-sq.-ft. space just nine months before the chain folded, so it was in great condition. Booksmith kept the fixtures, but changed the layout and the signage, repainted the walls in warm terracotta tones and hung literary quotations to make the space more inviting. Brigham said the idea was not to make it look like the Brookline store, but to give it "its own feel" and differentiate it from Lauriat's. Booksmith also hired three Lauriat's staff members who had worked at the Wellesley store and were known to the community. For the first few months, until permanent staff could be hired, additional workers from the Brookline store commuted to the Wellesley branch 13 miles away. "Wellesley is a small community and it's not centrally located, so we found it hard to staff at first," said Brigham. The store has now built its own dedicated staff of 14, mostly residents of the Wellesley area.

The response to the new store from the local community has been very positive. With both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders on the outskirts of town, "the few independents that had existed here closed over the last 10 years, so people seem grateful to have a bookstore in downtown," said Wellesley. She plans on combating competition from the chains with the same tools she uses at the Brookline store: community events; the store's Web site; discounts for local teachers, seniors and nonprofits; an emphasis on customer service; and participation in the ABA's Book Sense program, which Booksmith is actively promoting

Nicola's Books-Little Professor
The flagship store of the Little Professor franchise was founded more than 30 years ago and has been in its present location on Jackson Avenue in Ann Arbor, Mich., since 1991. When Nicola Rooney purchased it in 1995, she had no intention of opening a second store, but once again opportunity knocked. This time it took the form of Webster's Books, a longtime full-service bookstore located across town from the then-newly named Nicola's Books, near the north campus area of the University of Michigan. Owned by a magazine company, the store was experiencing steadily declining sales, suffering, in Rooney's opinion, from corporate neglect and a lack of marketing and publicity efforts. When Webster's parent company approached Rooney in May 1999 about purchasing the store, they were able to reach an agreement "at a price I couldn't refuse."

One of the main attractions was that Rooney knew Webster's manager, Kate McCune, well and felt confident that they could work together to turn the store around. "All the things wrong with it were things that could be changed," she told PW. Another plus was that the landlord of the strip mall where Webster's was located was committed to having an independent bookstore there -- he had even turned down an offer from Barnes & Noble. The store reopened as Nicola's Books-Little Professor in September 1999.

Rooney has kept the original Webster's staff intact, but mingles the staff of the two stores so that "they are fully cross-trained." That way, "if one store is short-staffed, the other store sends someone over." Some staff members work in both stores on a regular basis. She has also merged the buying for the two stores, whose computerized inventories will soon be linked by remote access on IBID. She made a number of changes upon taking over the space, rearranging the layout, adding sidelines and seating areas, and returning "dead" stock. The two stores now carry a "broadly similar inventory" of about 50,000 titles and have similar sales of bestsellers and frontlist, but Rooney sees some significant differences as well. Due to the student body influence from U. of M, the second store sells much more science fiction, history and sociology, and fewer children's titles. It also has, so far at least, a significantly lower sales volume than the first store. Rooney hopes to combat this with local newspaper and radio advertising, and a wide range of in-store events to publicize the change in ownership and style.

The community response to the new store has been generally positive, said Rooney, though "some people have found the changes disruptive." She admits the market is tougher now than when she turned around the first store five years ago, especially with both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders in close proximity to the new branch. But she knows that it takes time to educate customers about the store's new emphasis on customer service and the broader title selection and "to build a loyal base." She remains confident. There is one rather unusual benefit of shopping at her stores that Rooney actively promotes: both stores will redeem any gift certificate from any bookstore in Ann Arbor -- even B&N or Borders. "It generates goodwill and gives people a reason to buy from us, as opposed to the chains. Plus, we just turn around and redeem the gift certificate right back."

Hungry Mind/Ruminator
As might be expected, this 30-year-old literary landmark in St. Paul, Minn., is putting its own unique spin on the upcoming April opening of its new branch -- and not just the name change from Hungry Mind to Ruminator Books (Bookselling, Jan. 31). After several years of discussion and planning, Ruminator will open a 3,000-sq.-ft. store in the new Open Book building in Minneapolis. Open Book is being designed as a literary center that will house three not-for-profit organizations: The Loft (a writing center); The Center for Book Arts, which showcases the art of book-making; and the publisher Milkweed Editions. In addition, it will house the bookstore, classrooms and a 200-seat performance space.

Ruminator owner David Unowsky said his "theory of second stores is to develop a niche, targeted market kind of store. What we do fits the space." The new store will emphasize p try, small press literary titles, design, architecture and art. It will also feature a large children's section, to dovetail with the many kid's classes offered by the Center for Book Arts, and special book displays that will tie in to other events and activities within the literary center. Unowsky estimated that the new branch will stock roughly 15,000 titles, as opposed to the main store's inventory of over 80,000.

The Open Book building itself is an old, historic warehouse that has been gutted and remodeled using grants from corporations and nonprofit foundations -- more than $6 million to date. Exposed brick, wood floors and a three-story atrium with a spiral staircase are just some of the features bound to attract the literary set. The bookstore will be spread out over three floors and will look quite different than the main Ruminator store, though it will maintain the same historic feel. Unowsky plans to centralize buying out of the original store, but expects that as the new store develops, some of the more specialized buying will be done on site.

The two inventory databases will be fully integrated via Computac/Square One, facilitating stock checks and same-day deliveries between the stores. Events and publicity will also be organized by from the main store. As for staffing, Unowsky has hired a manager from another bookstore to run the new location, and plans to add six to eight new staff members. He also expects some flux between the two staffs, at least in the early stages of the store's development. Unowsky told PW that "as the sole surviving general independent bookstore in the Twin Cities, you have to try new things. As far as we know, this sort of joint literary endeavor has never been attempted before." Look for news of Open Book's grand opening in late May.

Changing Hands
Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., recently announced that it will be close its original location on April 1 -- 26 years to the day since it opened in 1974. In this case, the opening of a second store in 1998 has proved to be the store's salvation. Faced with "chain stores in every direction," according to co-owner Gayle Shanks, diminishing foot traffic due in part to the construction of a nearby building that blocks visibility, parking problems and plans for yet another chain less than three blocks away, the once-thriving bookstore found itself struggling to remain in business. Someone suggested opening a second store in another neighborhood, to broaden the customer base. After much research, Shanks found what she was looking for in a small strip mall seven miles away from the first location, filled with "like-minded retailers," such as Trader J 's gourmet food store, a used bookstore and several small restaurants.

Changing Hands took over a former Walgreens and invited a bakery called the Wildflower Bread Company to take 3,000 of the 16,000-sq.-ft. space, which Shanks said has become a key component of the store's success. "Customers love the open feel of the space, and often don't realize the bakery isn't part of the store."

Shanks went out of her way to re-create the look and feel of the original store, using the same fixtures and color scheme. She also instituted the same 50-50 mix of new and used books, but in the new store they're shelved side by side, with a red dot on the spine indicating a used or remaindered title.

Each store has had its own separate staff, which Shanks said she now regrets, because it caused some competition between the stores, particularly as the new one demanded more of her time and energy. "It's hard to divide ourselves equally, as owners, and that caused some resentment." If she has any advice to give prospective multi-store booksellers, it is to have staff members work in both stores.

When it became clear that sales were not going to rebound at the original site and the decision was made to close it, Shanks invited the entire staff of eight to work at the new store. Half of them are taking her up on her offer and are already working there a few days a week to familiarize themselves with the space. The other four didn't want the longer commute and will look for employment elsewhere when the store closes in April.

Though it looks similar to the original store, the new branch is different in several key ways. It is located in a middle-class, suburban area, with more of a family-oriented focus, so Shanks has enlarged the children's area; it is now one of her top-selling sections. The cooking, home-decorating and gardening sections are also booming, and Shanks is suddenly finding herself selling a lot of Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse books. She has also expanded the sidelines she carries to include gift items like wind chimes and handmade pottery. Categories that had sold well in the original store -- which is located near the university -- such as psychology, Eastern philosophy and New Age, are not much of a factor anymore. "It took a year of trial and error to get a sense of the trends, and we're still playing with it every day" Shanks said. The new store also holds in-store events and author signings almost daily. Last month, a reading by Richard Bach drew 150 people, "mostly an older crowd who had read Jonathan Livingston Seagull years ago," she said. "He's still here... and I guess we are, too."
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