A young couple sits on the floor in a corner at the Samuel French Bookshop in Hollywood, quietly reading scenes from a play to one other, oblivious to the commotion surrounding them. Gwen Feldman, West Coast operations manager and IT director for Samuel French Inc., is proud that the store's atmosphere can nurture determined actors, directors, writers and producers. “We're selling dreams here, but we also help with their craft,” she said of Samuel French, a unique hybrid bookstore, publisher and licensing agent for thousands of playwrights in the U.S. and abroad. The store, which has a smaller location in Studio City, considers itself a community center for the performing arts in Southern California.
The bookstore opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1946, and Samuel French has expanded to include two on-site warehouses and retail space that has tripled in size. About 50% of its inventory is trade books, all on the performing arts; the other half consists of the licensed plays for which Samuel French is known throughout the world. Combined, the store boasts about 35,000 titles.
Two months ago, the store implemented its first computer system for inventory control. Mark Simon, longtime book buyer at Samuel French, is pleased with the results. “It's so useful to have all this information at my fingertips now. For the first time, I can sense a bigger range of our sales and our titles,” Simon said. The store had to close for four days so the staff could take a complete inventory of every play and book in stock, and Feldman had to build a database for the plays, most of which don't have ISBNs.
“Samuel French does for playwrights what ASCAP and BMI do for musicians. We simply can't turn people away when they're asking for plays,” Feldman said. The store acts as an information center, locating plays for customers or discerning if a play has been published.
Some of their biggest customers are theater arts departments in schools and universities, making January, August and September the biggest months in the store. Samuel French also does a substantial mail-order business and it generates income from licensing plays.
Because of its specialized nature, Samuel French is sheltered from the worst of the vagaries of the economy, although it did lose about a third of its business for several months during the Writers Guild strike. “I've been here for 20 years,” Feldman said, “and our sales have consistently gone up every year.”
Sales of plays invariably lead to additional in-store sales—many customers who buy a play also purchase trade books on acting and producing and how-to titles on finding an agent or writing screenplays. Popular impulse items include mugs, T-shirts and stationery imprinted with show business taglines (“I can't... I have rehearsal”).
Samuel French employs 30 people between the two stores, and some of Hollywood's best-known personalities are frequent customers. “From the biggest stars to the people who just got off the bus, this is where they all come for film books in L.A.,” said Feldman.