Late last year, when many independents considered doing well a matter of holding their own, Olsson's Books & Records opened two new stores: one at Reagan National Airport, the other in Rosslyn, Va. The increased selling space has given Olsson's even more to celebrate this year, which marks the 30th anniversary for the nine-store regional chain, the oldest independent book and music stores in the greater Washington, D.C., area. Although, as founder John Olsson noted, "I've got to come clean for PW; it's not 30 years in the book business. I started in records in 1972, and didn't add books until 1975."
General manager Virginia Powers, who's been with Olsson's for 21 of those years, prefers to think of Olsson's as "one big superstore." The secret of Olsson's success, she told PW, is "we change with the times. We're flexible, and we listen to the community." That adaptability enabled the company to weather the downturn in music sales first brought on when Tower and Best Buy entered the D.C. market. When those stores turned bestselling CDs into loss leaders, Olsson's responded by reconfiguring its product mix, from an equal split between books and music to 60/40 in favor of books. "Today books are the important part of revenue," observed Powers. "It wasn't always that way."
Five years ago, when bookstore competition began heating up with the introduction of more chain superstores and Amazon.com, flexibility translated into making two stores into Beanie Baby centers. In a recent interview in the Washington Post, Olsson credited high-margin Beanie Babies with the company's survival. Today, with chain stores near many Olsson's locations, the company is considering a new tack. This time it may adjust by adding more smaller-scale stores, like the 3,000-square-foot one in Rosslyn, which is about half the size of a typical Olsson's.
"Our strategy is small: focus, focus, focus on the community and our Olsson's card," explained Powers, referring to the stores' frequent-buyer program. For the first and second $100 worth of books and music customers buy, they receive a $5 store coupon. After that, they get a $10-store coupon for every $100 they spend. "It's a great rewards program," noted Powers. In addition, Olsson's has a Buyer's Choice Program, in which 20 to 60 new hardcovers are discounted 20% each month. Olsson's also discounts hardcover bestsellers and the Book Sense 76 list.
Part of what makes Olsson's unique is that the stores are managed by consensus rather than fiat. As a result, there is much less staff turnover. Employees stay an average of eight to 10 years. Senior buyer Jim Tenney, whom Olsson calls "Washington's premiere bookseller," has been with the company since 1975, when he as hired to start a separate book department. While all nine stores are similar, Olsson's has worked hard to distinguish each one. "We have different strengths at each store and develop a specialization," said Powers. "We know what those specialties are, and we don't duplicate them." For instance, the Georgetown Olsson's is strong in history, international relations and public policy, while Rosslyn, which has only been open a few months, has already started to build its foreign-language section. The Lansburgh location carries theater books and in Old Town Alexandria, U.S. history moves quickly. Even used book subjects vary from store to store.
Events, too, are divvied up based on location "With our many locations through the Washington, D.C., area, Olsson's shapes each store to meet community needs," noted marketing manager Alicia Greene, who's been with Olsson's for more than 15 years. The Metro Center store at the corner of 12th and F Streets, which can seat 100 comfortably, handles the majority of Olsson's events. "They close at 7 p.m. except when there's an event," said Powers. "We don't have the store in operation at the time, so everybody's focused on the event. We have a sound system and can move fixtures and put up chairs." The Bethesda store, which specializes in new fiction and mysteries, hosts most of the mystery signings, while larger events, such as those featuring Michael Moore and Jane Goodall, are held at the Arlington-Courthouse store, as are daytime readings for school kids. Smaller lunchtime signings by such celebrity authors as James Patterson and Tom Clancy are held at the Lansburgh store, and celebrity readings, such as those by authors Michael Frayn, Isabel Allende and E.O. Wilson, are held off-site in the ballroom of the National Press Club. In addition, Olsson's sells books at the Press Club's events and handles their annual book fair/fundraiser, which sometimes features as many as 75 authors. Olsson's launched its Web site (www.olssons.com) in 1997, and events are promoted there and in the store's e-mail newsletter, which goes out weekly to 5,000 customers.
Olsson's buying system helps foster individuality among the stores. Each store has its own buyer, and once a week, they get together at Powers's office for a group buy. "It's intrinsic to our staying in communication with each other," said Powers, who concedes that sometimes the group can be pretty rowdy. "We let our enthusiasm rip." At the buying sessions, they mark up catalogues by store and also vote on which books should be part of Buyer's Choice. Stores also keep in touch by sharing their daily "short list," a printout of what's selling, with notations for specialized books that might do well at the other stores. The computerized inventory system, which was designed specifically for Olsson's by Wallace-Haines, enables each store to see what's in stock at each location.. According to Greene, "customers have come to rely on store-to-store transfers. They know that they can pick up a book that's over at one of the other stores the next day, except Sunday." A van circles among the stores and Olsson's distribution center in nearby Rockville, Md.
While each of the stores offers plenty of food for thought, only a few have cafés, and each of those is separately owned and operated. Arlington-Courthouse's Café Matisse, for instance, serves gourmet sandwiches and desserts. Lansburgh's Footnotes Café has a license to serve beer and wine, and Old Town Alexandria's Café Mocha offers only coffee and pastries.
Powers and the book and music buyers are working to find a public way to commemorate the opening of the first Record & Tape Ltd., which Olsson financed by mortgaging his parents' house. (The stores weren't renamed Olsson's Books & Records until the mid-'80s.) For starters, in February, Olsson's donated 2,000 books and $1,200 in gift certificates to three Washington schools directly affected by September 11. "We couldn't think of a better way to celebrate our 30th anniversary," said Olsson. "The books are donated in memory of the students and teachers who lost their lives in the tragedy." Then, in May, when Olsson's officially celebrates the opening of the Rosslyn store, all the stores will promote 30 of Olsson's favorite books and records—often titles the store supported early on.
How Olsson's will fare over the next 30 years is anyone's guess. Today, remarked John Olsson, "It's a vastly changed and difficult industry for independents. Fortunately, I'm surrounded by bright and energetic book and music people—always have been—and we survive." If Olsson's can continue to reinvent itself, the company may continue to beat the odds. After all, said Olsson, "we're still having a good time."