Like Christmas, CIROBE comes but once a year. For the other 362 days, wholesalers rely on showroom and warehouse visits (as well as a mix of e-mail and other tactics) to sell their wares. But whether it's best to bring customers to a showroom—most located on lower Fifth Avenue in New York City—or allow them to make warehouse visits, or potentially offer both options, is a heated topic in the discount book trade.
"In New York you can have blackouts, you can have terrorism, but we just keep coming back stronger. People want to do business here. This is where it's happening," says Stina Forsell, staunch New York loyalist and president of the newly formed discount book company Maximus Books (named for Forsell's pet pug) of her decision to open a showroom in New York.
There may be warehouse visits in the company's future, but for now, Forsell is sticking with the showroom. "Initially I'd rather do that than have warehouse buying. It's a smoother, cleaner operation that way. You can take a plane and see three people at warehouses, and that's great," Forsell continues, "but you can see the majority of the product at the showroom in one day. Discount is an opportunistic thing. If you come in, you're going to get the product."
Forsell is not alone in believing that showroom visits are the best way to bring buyers to the product. Joe Fortin, sales director of Book Sales Incorporated, explains, "The up-to-date quality of a showroom is the most important thing, and the first thing out of everybody's mouth is always, 'What's new?' The biggest advantage in the showroom is that someone will see new remainders we bought today or yesterday." Book Sales, which is also active in promotional publishing and reissuing out-of-print books as well as remainders, is celebrating 50 years in business this year and opened its first showroom more than 40 years ago (see sidebar, p. S2). Today, the showroom, on Fifth Avenue at 30th Street, stocks approximately 4,000 titles at any given time.
On showroom visits, sellers have more time to spend with individual customers. Marketing Resource leases about 6,000 square feet in the 230 Fifth Avenue building, about two-thirds of that showroom space. "From a buyer's standpoint it's probably a lot more comfortable," says president Ed Grossman. "We have an unusually pleasant environment and people do like to come and sit and relax and peruse."
And while CIROBE is now an indispensable stop for all the companies interviewed for this article, the showroom does offer a chance to sell product, especially for a company like Marketing Resource that sells gift items as well as books. Says Grossman, "Things are displayed better. Permanent fixtures are set up. Everything is shown to better advantage than it could be on tabletops. CIROBE is a really concentrated buying experience. People come with pen in hand and they're ready to write, but we don't bring everything to trade shows like CIROBE. For one thing, CIROBE is 80% to 90% books. We bring a smattering of gift items, but the showroom has everything we own."
Showrooms don't have a lock on the discount book business, however. A number of companies are now taking retail buyers straight to the source with warehouse visits. American Book Company—which recently moved into a new 3,500-sq.-ft. showroom in New York—also welcomes customers at its 250,000-square-foot warehouse in Knoxville, Tenn.
"I was in retail before I was a wholesaler—I had 73 remainder bookstores—and I always found hidden treasures in warehouses, stuff that isn't on the normal inventory list or not in the showroom," says CEO and president Dean Winegardner. "Of course everybody goes to New York to buy books and I feel the showroom is impressive, but the warehouse sells the books. At the warehouse we've always got 250,000 square feet of books piled high to the ceiling. And who wouldn't want to come to the Great Smoky Mountains and do a little book buying on the side?"
George Williams, senior buyer for the small east Tennessee chain Book Warehouse, makes monthly warehouse visits, and he finds them more fruitful than showroom shopping. He says, "You seem to find a few more what I call gems, diamonds in the rough. In a showroom you don't find the small quantities or the odd little things that might be stuck in a corner in a warehouse." Williams once made a visit to the American Book Company warehouse that coincided with simultaneous sorting of books from Random House, HarperCollins and Penguin. "The variety was amazing," he recalls.
Paul Secor, buyer for New York City's Strand Bookstore, notes that showroom business is more convenient for him as he's in the city already, but he still finds warehouse visits extremely productive. "It's more unsorted, and you see a lot of things in process that you can get on top of quickly," he says. Secor counts copies of The Great Gatsby and the Penguin edition of The Tale of Genji among his recent warehouse finds.
Edward Bell, buyer for Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., makes a mix of warehouse and showroom visits, in addition to attending CIROBE and other shows, to buy remainders, hurt books, promotional books and non-returnable books. "The warehouse visits that give the best bang for the buck are with people who are buying mixed lots of books, publisher returns and hurts that they're breaking down," he says. "We kind of rescue some of these books and get them out there at a price where they're going to turn really fast."
Bell observes that warehouses offer the added advantage of providing an idea of the quantity of a specific title. "One of the ways in which we distinguish ourselves from the big corporate chains is that we can efficiently deal with real short quantities, but in a showroom you're rarely going to see anything that's in short quantity. Nobody's going to put a book in their showroom if they have 20 copies," he says.
Let's Hear It for the Book
Ultimately, whether in a showroom or a warehouse, and despite the infiltration of all segments of the publishing business by the Internet, when it comes to books, buyers still want to hold the physical product in their hands.
John Herring, sales executive for Book Club of America, notes, "It's not enough just to get an e-mail list and sales spreadsheet. If it's a title somebody recognizes, Stephen King or Jude Deveraux or Jeffery Deaver, you don't need to see the book. You know how well the last Mary Higgins Clark did and you know how well this one will do. But if it's a midlist title and you're not familiar with the author, it helps to hold the actual book in your hand and see the dust jacket."
That's especially true in the discount sector, where books are not always in pristine condition. Says Forsell, "Discount has issues to it. You have to make sure that what you've gotten from the publisher is in good shape."
Bell of Powell's agrees: "Ultimately for me the thing is the quality of the information I'm getting. Looking at a list or a picture of the book is a much different experience than having a book in your hand. Take a book on cloning. If it's a book that's six or seven years old, it's a historical document. If you have the book in your hand, you flip to the copyright page and see when it was published. Online I may have to do some additional research."
"There's no substitute for the book," concurs Secor at the Strand. "When you actually see the book, it clicks."
At After words, a remainder and overstock bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., co-owner Steve Kelly says, "I don't recognize a lot of books from a title list, which is what you get on the Internet. I like being able to look at how the book presents itself to the public. I want to be able to read the author blurb. I want to be able to look at the illustrations. It makes you aware of how many really excellent books flop miserably because of bad covers."
Kelly finds these heady times for overstock and remainder book buyers. "We've always described ourselves as crows picking at the literary roadkill," says Kelly, "and there's a lot of roadkill out there right now." After words does over half a million dollars in business annually, even more impressive when you consider that, as Kelly points out, "that's at an average selling price of $5.98 or $6.98."
In such busy times, keeping up with overstocks and remainders becomes even more labor-intensive. "We try to get out to something every four to six weeks," says Kelly. "We used to go to New York three or four times a year, but these days we're spending a lot time in warehouses and at the smaller shows."
Like the old question of the chicken and the egg, the showroom vs. warehouse debate may never be settled, but Bell of Powell's, who diplomatically demurs when asked to choose one over the other, does offer a caveat that weighs heavily on the nose, if not the brain: "Showrooms tend to be less dusty than warehouses."