To withstand pressures from big box retailers and—not to mention high energy costs—independent regional chains have been forced to continually reinvent themselves. "We're a lot more mobile than the big guys are," said Lynda Fitzgerald, frontlist buyer for Barbara's Bookstores. For many of the indie chains, mobility means not only having the ability to respond quickly to hot trends, but literally means the ability to go where the customers are, even if that means leaving favorite locations behind.

In June, for example, the three-store Tattered Cover "chain" confronted changing demographics and rising rent by moving its main store from the Cherry Creek North neighborhood to the newly renovated Lowenstein Theater on Colfax Avenue, in an up-and-coming area. Powell's, too, will relocate a store this fall. It's Beaverton, Ore., location will move a few miles away into a 32,500-sq.-ft. space, double its current size.

For some stores, being a neighborhood bookseller means adding locations or expanding services. In early October, Books Inc. will open its 11th, and largest store, in the 5,500-sq.-ft. site recently vacated by A Clean Well-Lighted Place in Opera Plaza, San Francisco. Olsson's Books & Records will add a sixth store, in Arlington, Va., in Crystal City's first street-level bookstore. And Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops will add to its Brookfield, Mich., store by partnering with nearby Froedtert Hospital to run a health and wellness bookstore.

Books Inc. co-owner Michael Tucker continues to find ways to innovate by looking beyond the company's overcrowded retail base in Northern California. "There are a lot of communities in Southern California that would like stores. I literally get four or five calls a week from developers," he said.

Across the country, in metropolitan Washington, D.C., Joe Murphy, head book buyer and general manager for books at Olsson's Books & Records, looks at finding the right location as "a difficult balancing act. Fortunately," he said, "we've had the good luck that when one store gets hit, another's business goes up. But what makes it more difficult is how hard the real estate market is." Late last year, Olsson's lost its Bethesda, Md., store when the building was converted to luxury apartments. The company is scouting replacement sites in Montgomery County.

"In this unprecedented time of difficulty for bricks-and-mortar bookstores, we keep looking for new ways to make bookselling a rational enterprise," said Barbara's Bookstore co-owner Don Barliant, which has stores throughout the country in airports and train stations, a hospital, a Shakespeare theater and Macy's. "The object is to profitably sell good books. The structure in which we do it is less important to us than the result. We tend to react to proposals made to us, rather than seeking them out." Barliant's most recent move came in August when Barbara's took over management of the Book Market at Hangar One, a 9,000-square-foot bookstore and cafe in an upscale development called the Glen Town Center in Glen View, Ill., a Chicago suburb. The store has been renamed Barbara's at the Book Market, and Barliant's team is working on making the location a full-service store.

Even when opportunity calls, some booksellers are pressing the hold button and reassessing what they do and how they do it. "The overall book market's not helping us any," said Neil van Uum, owner of Joseph-Beth/Davis-Kidd Booksellers. "You have to run such a tight operation." Although his business is based on adding new locations, after opening 30,000-sq.-ft. stores in Charlotte, N.C., and Pittsburgh, Pa., and relocating a Davis-Kidd store in Nashville, he is taking a hiatus until 2007. "Three stores in two years is a faster pace than I'm comfortable with," said van Uum. "We're doing some retooling. We've hired a COO, Mark Wilson, so I can focus on marketing and sales issues."

He's not the only bookseller feeling growing pains. Simba Sana, founder of one of the largest African-American bookstore chains, Karibu Books, is concerned about day-to-day management issues. "If we can change the culture of Karibu, we can open more stores," he said. His most recent expansion took place in April, when Karibu moved from a kiosk into a store in the Pentagon City Mall. "Most of our staff are only here for a hot minute," said Sana, who has gone through two managers in five months at his Security Square Mall store in Baltimore. Currently he is spending time at each of his six stores. In addition to looking for ways to increase the average customer purchase, Sana is working to cut shrinkage, especially for street life books, and is considering adding cafes to boost sales.

While Murphy attributes part of Olsson's success to its distinctive inventory—"I think people are thrilled when they see a bookstore that's not all phoned in," he said—that's not always the case. At Mr. Paperback, one of the few remaining New England regional chains, general manager Jim McCree is fighting what he calls "the McDonald's factor. People are shopping more and more at the national retailers. They think, 'We know what we're getting, and it's quick.' " Rather than expanding, he said, "we want to shore up what we have." The stores, which are located in many of the smallest towns in Maine, typically stock about 60% books, 15% magazines and 20% gift items. Lately, however, he's found that the souvenir business is falling off. "People don't want stuffed lobsters," he noted.

With an inventory base of four and a half million titles and a used book business that needs to be continually fed, Powell's has had to do some retooling of its own. According to Emily Powell, who is in the newly established role of director of used books, the company is working with CompuTech on a new inventory system to be implemented in January, which will enable its used book portal to query the entire system to determine which books it wants. In addition, the company continues to fine-tune The site does 55% of its business outside Oregon and 30% internationally. To bring more local foot traffic into its stores, Powell's just implemented an in-store pick-up program, which is available only at the main store.

Although the challenges confronting multistore independents may be on a larger scale than those faced by smaller independents, the mission remains the same. "Our role is not very different than the role we served when we were a single store," said Tattered Cover general manager Matthew Miller. "Our purpose is to bring people and books together in an ethical, profitable and socially conscious way."

Scholastic Rep Turns Bookseller
Vicki Erwin, who early in her career was a buyer for the now-defunct City Books bookstore in St. Louis County, Mo., and was most recently a sales rep for Scholastic, has bought Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. Erwin acquired the store from Mary Fran Rash, who will remain at Main Street Books as Erwin's partner until her retirement, probably at the end of 2007.

Erwin is confident that she can make Main Street work. "I've visited enough bookstores over the years; I know what works. And, just as important, what doesn't work. I also know what a publisher can and can't do" for bookstores. Location and product mix are two keys, she said and her first act as owner was to move the store three blocks north, to a more central, more visible storefront in downtown St. Charles. The store now has 1,800 sq. ft. of space on two floors of a historic building. It carries 8,000— 10,000 titles, with a strong's children's section. Besides Erwin and Rash, the store has three employees.

Erwin acknowledged that bookselling is not an easy business today, but observed: "I know exactly what I'm getting into. But it's easier to work hard when you love what you are doing." —Claire Kirch

What's Selling Where

A look at what's selling at some of the nation's largest retailers finds TheMemory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards the top seller at Target as of September 18, followed by Nora Roberts's Morrigan's Cross. has Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat as its #1 seller, followed by Christine Feehan's Dark Celebration. Wholesaler AMS reports that Brad Meltzer's The Book of Fate debuted at #1 in fiction, while the 2007 Guinness World Records held onto the top spot in nonfiction.