"Virginia is really two states, Northern Virginia (NoVa) and the rest, but there's an ongoing debate where that dividing line is,” said Ed Southern, v-p of sales and marketing at John Blair. “Almost anyone who identifies themselves as a Virginian will agree that nothing inside or even bordering the Beltway can be considered Virginia.”

This split is mirrored in the bookselling community. Inventory for NoVa booksellers tends to be more closely attuned to the needs of metropolitan Washington, where many of their customers work, and several stores are part of the Washington-area multistore independents Olsson's and Karibu Books. Although history and religion are the strongest book categories in both parts of the state, sidelines, like the Confederate flags stocked by a Roanoke bookseller, are a different matter.

And wealth can be a dividing factor. NoVa includes three of the country's richest counties, with populations over 250,000. Loudoun, which has a median income of $98,483, is #1, followed by Fairfax with $94,610. Prince William places seventh with $81,904. However, parts of the rest of Virginia also have money; Virginia Beach is the fourth richest city in the U.S.

Stores throughout the state face stiff competition not just from online retailers but from brick-and mortar discounters like mass merchandisers and grocery stores. The Old Dominion State has a population of 7.46 million people and 78 national chain bookstores, 106 ABA and CBA stores and more than 150 mass merchandisers. Michigan, for example, has fewer book retailers and nearly three million more people.

Virginia is rich in American history. Four of the first five presidents hailed from the state, as did Robert E. Lee. And Virginia was the site of the first permanent settlement in the New World and the seat of the Confederacy. “Our thing is the tourists,” said Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond. “We have a Civil War section and a resident expert on staff.”

Six years ago, when Colonial Williamsburg expanded its 900-sq.-ft. bookstore/gift shop into two separate 4,400 sq.-ft.-stores and broadened its inventory to compete with a nearby Barnes & Noble college store, sales dropped. “We went back to having everything we could on the colonial times,” said publications buyer John Hornback.

Prince Books in Norfolk, which is celebrating its 25th year, caters to those who come to the national headquarters of the Coast Guard or are en route to the Outer Banks. To compete with mass merchandisers, owner Sarah Pishko has begun discounting select bestsellers by Grisham and Patterson. “I don't want to marginalize myself,” said Pishko. A number of stores in her area have succumbed to the competition. During the past year Lambda Rising, Broad Street Books and a Walden closed.

At 16,000-sq.-ft. Givens Books and Little Dickens in Lynchburg, Danny Givens uses the “wow” factor to attract buyers. The walls are decorated with hand-drawn paintings, and a five-foot T-Rex marks the children's section, which has a doll house big enough for kids to play in. There's even a fish pond outside. “We really tried to push the limits,” said Givens, whose sales continue to rise, but at a much slower pace than in previous years. “We're lucky we're in an area big enough for Barnes & Noble, but not two or three.”

Last month Chapters Bookshop in Galax, home of the Old Fiddler's Convention, saw a bump in sales when it moved next door and added 500 sq. ft. Said owner Sharon Ritchie, “In the first week, we got so many customers, it was like opening a new McDonald's.”

Bookselling Health IndexHousehold Income: $50,805Population: 7,460,000Independent Bookstores: 106Chain Bookstores: 78Total Bookstores: 184Big-box Stores: 151Total Stores: 335Stores per Capita: 1 per 22,268Per Capita Rank: 21

Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.'s oldest bookstores are 35-year-old Olsson's Books & Records and the 33-year-old gay-lesbian specialty retailer, Lambda Rising. Most of the stores dating from even the 1950s are gone. The most recent loss is that of the 54-year-old art book retailer, Franz Bader Bookstore, which closed at the end of October after the landlord doubled its rent.

Still, the District has a large number of bookstores per capita, ranking fourth after Montana. As one of the 10 richest cities in the U.S., with the sixth highest population density, 9,378 people per square mile, the nation's capital has both the people (554,000) and money (a median household income of $42,118) to support 14 chains and 24 ABA stores. It has the same number of bookstores as Arkansas, with one-fifth the population.

“The book market in Washington is really very strong,” said Clinton Froscher, buyer at Kramerbooks and Afterwords, the “original” bookstore/cafe near Embassy Row. “There's always a book in town that everyone's talking about. Washington is unusual. It's not just political books that sell. Fiction is our strongest category and tends to have a long life.”

Mark LaFramboise, trade book buyer at Politics & Prose, near Chevy Chase, Md., agrees. “Our name notwithstanding, we sell as much fiction and mystery as we do politics and history.” Politics & Prose maintains an active schedule of in-store events, and owner Carla Cohen leads trips to Mexico and the Hudson Valley and an annual pilgrimage to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania.

Stores in the District continually revise themselves, like the 22-year-old Chapters: A Literary Bookstore, which posted its last day as a for-profit at the end of September. Its inventory is now in storage, and owners Terri Merz and Steve Moyer are about to sign a new lease, for a nonprofit literary arts center, which will include a bookstore and tea room. The National Gallery of Art bookstore, which has 10,000 books on art, cinema, architecture, landscape architecture and design, is expanding into another realm, cyberspace. Buyer Don Henderson said it will launch an interactive e-commerce site at nga.gov late this year or early next.

And new stores continue to open. Two years ago, Andy Shallal opened Busboys & Poets in the U Street Corridor, once the “Black Broadway” of Washington. In addition to an art gallery and restaurant, it includes a nonprofit bookstore operated by Teaching for Change, an organization dedicated to transforming schools into centers of justice. Given its mission, the bookstore's inventory is a bit different from many of its D.C. cohorts. It doesn't even stock Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's bestseller. Instead books like Michael Jacoby Brown's Building Powerful Community Organizations (Long Haul Press) are among its top sellers. “I can't keep that book on the shelf,” bookstore general manager Don Allen said. Allen can't match the meteoric sales of the restaurant portion of the business, however, and he's finding the bookstore's second location in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington, Va., which opened at the end of August, slower to take off.

Olsson's—with its two D.C.-proper stores in neighborhoods where people work (it also has a store at National Airport and three in the Virginia suburbs)—has begun tweaking its events schedule to attract more people from residential neighborhoods and now has events at all its stores, said Alexis Akre, head book buyer and general manager. “We're trying smaller, multiple events at all our stores, and we're tightening up our buying.”

Bookselling Health Index

Household Income: $42,118

Population: 554,000

Independent Bookstores: 25

Chain Bookstores: 14

Total Bookstores: 39

Big-box Stores: 0

Total Stores: 39

Stores per Capita: 1 per 14,205