With so many booksellers facing economic difficulties, PW wondered why three high-profile bookstore owners who had left the business recently opened new bookstores.
PW chatted with Jeannette Watson, Clara Villarosa and Darielle Linehan to find out. Their stories turned out to be remarkably similar: while all had intended to leave the business permanently, good old-fashioned serendipity pulled them back in. And each woman expressed delight at having a new opportunity to return to the bookselling world she loves.
Jeannette Watson: An Offer She Couldn't Refuse
Previously: owner, Books & Co., New York City, from 1977 to 1997. Currently: owner, The Lenox Hill Bookstore, New York City, since August 2001.
For 20 years, Jeannette Watson's labor of love was the well-known Books & Co. on New York City's affluent Upper East Side. But the opening of a nearby Barnes & Noble plus a prohibitive rent increase from its landlord and next-door neighbor, the Whitney Museum of American Art, proved fatal for the 2,000-sq.-ft. literary bookstore, and it closed in May 1997. Watson's post-bookselling plans were to "focus on my publishing—the Books & Co. imprint of Turtle Point Press—and my teaching."
Then came the call: Helene ("Lenny") Golay, owner of The Corner Bookstore in the same neighborhood, asked Watson if she'd like to work at The Lenox Hill Bookstore, her other store at 76th Street and Lexington Avenue. "I thought, why would I want to work in one if I'd owned one?" But Watson missed being around books so much that she agreed to work in the store for two days a week. Three years later, Golay informed Watson that she was tired of running two stores, and offered Watson the opportunity to purchase The Lenox Hill Bookstore.
"I was very nervous about it," Watson told PW. But the idea was irresistible and, in August 2001, she bought the five-year-old store. This time, though, there were clear advantages. "There were lots of pluses: I'd seen the financials. There was a customer base. It would not have been as exhausting as starting from scratch. It was a beautiful, existing working bookstore in my old neighborhood, near where my old one had been. And it had a fantastic staff." Besides Watson, there are five full-time booksellers.
In comparing the two experiences, Watson noted, "Here, we have tremendous services and systems, technology that we didn't have at Books & Co. We have a great Web site—lenoxhillbooks.com—and an e-mail newsletter. We get orders that way. We also advise people on books for fiction and nonfiction book clubs. If you come and ask for a title we don't have, we do research: order it from Europe, or do an out-of-print search. So I'm never in a position to say 'We can't find your special order.' And we have a lot of kids, where at Books & Co., there were more grandparent types. The kids buy books on their house accounts, which are linked to credit cards. We also have free delivery in the neighborhood and we gift wrap. The system works like clockwork."
She attributes that to Golay's original organization of the store and the work. "The jobs are so clearly defined by Lenny. Everyone knows what their job is for every day of the week: inventory, orders and so on." Golay's husband, she added, designed and built the store.
Watson admits that she doesn't know the number of titles the store stocks in its 800 square feet; however, she does know that 2002 sales were "way up over last year, which had 9/11 in it, and we predict a fantastic fall book season." She also knows that the recipe for success is customer service, readings and autographed copies. "Every book that comes in I think, how can we get the author to sign it? I've been calling all the poets to come in and sign their books."
Darielle Linehan: Location, Location, Location
Previously: co-owner, Dunn & Dunn Booksellers, Naples, Fla., from 1997 to 2001.
Currently: owner, The Ivy Bookshop, Baltimore, Md., since November 2001.
Darielle Linehan co-owned Dunn & Dunn with her sister, Joellen Scully, a 25-year veteran of the bookselling business who had managed a Boston branch of Stroudwater Books. Already familiar with Naples through frequent visits, the sisters decided to open a store there. They found 3,000 square feet of retail space on the second level of an upscale shopping center in Old Naples.
During the next five-plus years, Linehan told PW, "We had a wonderful time with the store. We did a lot of community things: a dog show, a weekly bridge game, cooking class and all the costumed kids' characters." But there was one thing the well-intentioned pair had not foreseen: it was a seasonal community. "We were totally busy from November through March—but dead the rest of the year!" said Linehan. "It was hard, going from chaos to total inactivity. So we decided to shut down."
After shuttering the store in July 2001, Linehan returned to Baltimore, her hometown. No sooner had she arrived that she learned that the local Bibelot Books and Music chain had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Suddenly, she said, "a really wonderful space became available here," which she checked out at the urging of her husband and family. "The funny thing was, I still had the fixtures and the computer system from the other store all ready to go." It took her three weeks, she said, to pack up and open The Ivy Bookshop.
From the day it opened, Linehan said, the store has been successful. "We were lucky—it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. When Bibelot closed, there was a whole pool of people who wanted to work in an independent bookstore." From this pool, she staffed the store with eight part-timers and one manager. As for customers, "We didn't see much of a summer dip at all! We have only two registers, and during the holidays people were standing in long lines—there was no space to wrap. And we took 2,000 special orders between January and March." The store also gets a lot of business from book club orders and student summer reading lists.
In Linehan's view, the bleak economy had little to do with the failure of Dunn & Dunn. "The downturn in the economy occurred after we shut our store. Plus, in Naples there was such a wealthy community. And I believe that people tend to buy books whether the economy is good or bad.
"Mine is a Cinderella story. I can't say I'm doing anything differently; it's just that now I have the customers and I have the location. I know why I wasn't successful in Naples: I didn't have the critical mass, therefore I didn't have the sales. [A] second floor [space] doesn't work! And parking is important—older people don't want to park in a garage, go down several flights, then walk six blocks."
At 1,250 square feet, the new store is about half the size of Dunn & Dunn. But the location is far superior: a small strip shopping center just outside the city, "on a major route that people use to go to work and to schools."
Besides the better location, Linehan attributes the store's success to its commitment to customer service, which she said is "exemplified by the number of special orders we get. We have a wonderful relationship with Koen, the New Jersey distributor. We can get books overnight, we're totally dedicated to tracking orders, and our customers are blown away by that." She also credits her success to the support she gets from her family and from Donna Paz of Paz & Associates, who consulted at both stores. "Donna was instrumental in both the big picture and the smaller details," said Linehan. "She had great observations about layout, inventory levels and how to organize a store this size."
Linehan's husband provides financial advice; one of her three sons, an investment banker, handles the store's inventory control systems; the second wants to maintain the mailing list of 7,000 names; and another son "is the best reader I have, so I sell him lots of books!"
Clara Villarosa: "Is This a Barnes & Noble?"
Previously: owner, The Hue-Man Experience, Denver, Colo., from 1984 to 2000.
Currently: co-owner, Hue-Man Books, Harlem, New York City, since August 2002.
After 16 years, Clara Villarosa planned to retire from bookselling and move to New York City to be with her family. First, however, she had to sell her 3,000-sq.-ft. Denver bookstore, The Hue-Man Experience—and not to just anyone: she wanted it to go to a community-minded, book-loving African-American owner. Finally, Villarosa found suitable buyers for the store in Joi Afzal, Kim Martin and Daryl Walker—three young African-Americans "who lived in Denver, had a lot of energy and were very much interested in running a bookstore." Villarosa noted that they're "still struggling—the African-American population in Denver is quite small."
After Villarosa arrived in New York, she was approached by the landlord of the Harlem USA retail mall, who wanted to put a bookstore in the complex, located on the busy shopping strip of 125th Street. "They'd spoken with Barnes & Noble, Borders, some independent bookstores and the other African-American bookstores in the metropolitan area, trying to find someone who would be interested, but no one was," Villarosa told PW. "I said I'd be interested in exploring it. Keep in mind that I was retired—but this was Harlem! Whereas the bookstore in Denver was a struggle—African-Americans in Denver were spread out all over the city—here, I could have what I consider my cake and eat it, too. I thought, why not?"
Three years in the making, the store evolved into a partnership between Villarosa and two women who "always wanted to open a bookstore but needed someone with expertise": Rita Ewing, attorney and ex-wife of New York Knick Patrick Ewing, and Celeste Johnson, wife of New York Knick Larry Johnson. The trio paid for the $1-million venture with private funding plus $475,000 in financing from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and the 4,000-sq.-ft. store opened in August 2002. The size of the store causes people to often ask, "Is this a Barnes & Noble?"
"It's my dream store," said Villarosa. "I wanted to create the largest selection of African-American titles you can find in one place and an ambiance. It has warm wood fixtures, carpeting, good lighting, good signage and is well organized. It's a pleasant place for people to shop." This is of special importance to Villarosa because the Denver bookstore was originally a pair of two-story row houses. "There, I had to create a store in an environment that was residential. It was 3,000 square feet, but it was all cut up: living room, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor."
The Harlem store is evolving based on customer needs. Already Villarosa has noticed that some of her assumptions were off. "We thought we'd stock from one-third to one-fourth non-ethnic titles, like New York Times bestsellers. We were stocking those in quantity, as well as other bestsellers recommended by our distributors—but they are not selling in the quantity we anticipated. It was a surprise to us, too!"
Customers, she said, are delighted to be able to locate and see African-American—interest books, compared to the small sections often found in other stores. "We're responding to that kind of demand from our customers. It also gives them a sense of the depth of product of African-American titles."
In October, the store kicked off its event series with 12 author appearances, among them Percival Everett and Tavis Smiley. "Publishers and publicists are calling me saying that they want [their authors] to come to an African-American bookstore, especially in Manhattan and especially in Harlem. It was a good location and it was retail space—I didn't have to wonder what to do with the closet!"