When Jack Buckley, owner of the stalwart Ninth Street Bookshop in Wilmington, was told about a bookselling article on Delaware, he jokingly asked, "Why?"
The diminutive size of the nation's first state means that it never generates a great deal of business, said Houghton field sales rep Ron Kononchik, who's covered the territory since 1979. Still, Penguin rep Joe Johnson pointed out, of the five main accounts that he visited in 1983, two still exist—the state's two significant independents, Ninth Street and Rehoboth Beach's Browseabout Books. And the story of these two stores accentuates the "great divide," as Buckley puts it, between the urban and suburban counties and the rural and vacation spots.
The state's largest city, Wilmington, now lacks the downtown customer base to support much retail. Once home to DuPont, the city has suffered as the chemical company moved its offices and industry to the suburbs. Buckley, a former teacher and Wilmington native, has been in his location for 30 years. He described the city as a "shrinking retail environment." Buckley's biggest source of business was once executives, government agents and other business people, many from DuPont, which he catered to by emphasizing business books. As the customer base has changed, Buckley has adjusted by shifting his focus to urban fiction. Still, it's difficult because there's little foot traffic, especially in the evenings when most of the city shuts down.
Many longtime suburban residents, Buckley noted, never come into Wilmington; chains opening to the north are now the area's major source of books. That includes Delaware's only Barnes & Noble, close to the Pennsylvania border on a busy thoroughfare where there is also a Borders. These stores' business may be driven in part by Pennsylvania residents attracted by Delaware's lack of sales tax. Borders has three other branches in the state, including two in the city of Newark. Big-box stores also have a presence; the state has eight Wal-Marts and six Kmarts. For his part, Buckley insisted that he loves the work, but is wary of the future. He said he's "heard so many times of an upswing in a couple of years, but it never happens."
In contrast, the Atlantic beach communities are thriving, said Kononchik, drawing not only crowds from across the Northeast in the summer but an increasing number of retirees. The hub is Rehoboth, which Leary said attracts a cross section of people. Steve Crane's Browseabout Books is possibly its spoke. Crane, a third-generation retailer, started Browseabout in 1975; its present location includes a cafe, gifts, toys and books, catering to a typical customer who is "female, college-educated, a grandmother or with children, and well-read."
In addition to a Wal-Mart and a Kmart, Rehoboth has a couple of warehouse stores dealing primarily in remainders that are operated by Atlantic Books, the small chain based in Montgomery, Pa., which has stores across the Mid-Atlantic (a former branch in Pittsburgh was spoofed as Boardwalk Books in Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh).
On a recent winter morning, Crane had already had 50 people in the store, drawn by coffee as well as all of the newspapers and magazines he stocks. In the summertime, he may reserve up to 80 copies of the New York Times for customers. And he opens the store remarkably early—6 a.m. during the summer, 6:30 a.m. in winter—so it functions as an informal town meeting place. Browseabout runs many events—150 to 180 last year. The store also sponsors a local radio show on Thursday mornings. Crane is sanguine about the future, but said it takes hard work to make the store a success. It "takes a lot of planning—we are well aware of what we're going to do," he said. The store is already discussing marketing and promotional ideas for next Christmas.