South Carolina, the land where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, has been a battleground between chain and independent booksellers that has had some notable casualties, including Chapter Two bookstore in Charleston, the state's traditional culture and tourism capital. Known for fine cuisine and stately hotels, the city of 600,000 is today served by a pair of Barnes & Nobles, a Waldenbooks and a Books-A-Million outlet, but no independent bookstore.
“If I were 20 years younger, I'd move down there and open one,” said Tom Warner, whose own bookstore, Litchfield Books, is 70 miles up the coast, on Pawleys Island.
Warner bought Litchfield Books in 2000 after retiring from the local textile business. He said, “The average person in the surrounding county is affluent, retired and at least 57 years old.” Accordingly, Warner has learned to cater to an older clientele and has added more book club-friendly events and a weekly Friday lunch with brand-name authors (retirees are less inclined to drive to evening events, he explained). As a consequence, business at Litchfield Books has more than doubled since he bought the store, going from $300,000 to $700,000 annually. “And we're up almost 20% this year,” he added.
With 31,189 square miles of area, South Carolina ranks 40th among states in size, but this includes 2,876 miles of coastline—much of which is popular with golfers and vacationers. As a consequence, bookstores are numerous along the coast, from Harborwalk Books in Georgetown to Indigo Books on John's Island and Ravenous Reader on James Island (both in suburban Charleston) to the chains that serve the more populous golfing communities of Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island (which also supports an indie—the Island Bookseller).
In total, there are 11 Barnes & Nobles, 11 Borders Stores and 13 Books-a-Millions. Most are in the largest cities and their environs. Independent bookstores remain clustered in small towns. Beaufort, S.C., a city of 13,000 people close to Georgia, boasts three indies: Bay Street Trading Company, Beaufort Bookstore and Firehouse Books & Espresso. Nevertheless, sales reps report that the accounts at these stores remain too small to warrant an in-person sales call and they typically bypass these smaller stores for those in the larger cities in the industrial center of the state.
Duff Bruce, owner of the Open Book in Greenville (at 10,000 square feet, the largest bookstore in the state), acknowledged, “There are parts of South Carolina where people with disposable income are less inclined to spend it on books, but Greenville is not one of them.” Duff's greatest concern is grooming future readers: “My father-in-law started this store in 1972 and I've been working at the Open Book since 1980,” he said. “I sincerely believe people are reading less and less. Most of my customers are 50 years old or older, and I don't see younger people coming in to replace them.”
At the Happy Bookseller in the state capitol of Columbia, owner Andy Graves is more sanguine. He said his store, which opened in 1974 and he bought in 1996, continues to benefit from the local “brain trust”—which includes a number of small colleges, including the University of South Carolina—who shop with him “despite the B&N and Borders superstores that opened less than a mile away.”
Wanda Jewell, executive director of the Southern Independent Bookstore Alliance and a resident of Columbia, believes there have been “an equal number of openings and closings.” She cited Fiction Addiction in Greenville and Pendleton Books & Baskets in Pendleton as new members of SIBA within the last two years. “Overall, South Carolina is holding its own.”