Bookstores Are Slowly Replacing Some of the Shelf Space Lost In the Borders Collapse

borders closed

When Borders liquidated at the end of 2011, it left many communities without a bookstore. Most independent booksellers were hesitant about leasing the smaller vacated stores, and shopping center owners were unwilling to carve up cavernous locations once occupied by the chain’s superstores, which were 20,000 sq. ft. and up. When it came to picking up former Borders customers, Amazon was the biggest winner.

Four years later, the bookselling landscape is changing once again. After several solid years, independents are looking at adding locations and taking back some of the physical bookshelf space that had been lost. Some are focusing on underserved towns where Borders once flourished, such as La Grange, Ill. Anderson’s Bookshops will open its third bookstore there on May 2, Independent Bookstore Day. Other stores, including Gottwals Books and its Walls of Books franchise, headquartered in Byron, Ga., are creating opportunities to encourage more would-be bookstore owners to give bookselling a try.

“Time needed to pass for the consumer, the landlord, and the bookstore market to figure out what should fill that space. It’s not another 20,000-sq.-ft. store, but maybe it’s two 4,000-sq.-ft. stores on different ends of town,” said Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books, which recently announced that it will open a third bookstore in the Seattle area.

In 2011, HugoBooks, with three stores in Massachusetts, opened a short-lived fourth location in a former Borders Express in Swampscott. That experience soured co-owner John Hugo on the midsized bookstores that originally constituted HugoBooks, which dates back 50 years to Hugo’s father founding the Spirit of ’76 Bookstore in Marblehead. “There are so many towns that want a bookstore,” said Hugo. “[But] they can’t support my dad’s old model of 3,000 sq. ft.”

Two years ago Hugo decided to experiment with shrinking the minichain’s Newburyport store, the Book Rack, from 3,000 to 900 sq. ft. He also brought in Atomic Cafe to share the remaining space and to promote foot traffic. Hugo found that the smaller store is more profitable. Now he’s about to test the concept in a slightly bigger space with a larger children’s section. This 1,200 sq. ft. store in Beverly, Cabot Street Books & Cards, which opens in May, will also be paired with an Atomic Cafe. “We’re trying to get the model right,” said Hugo. “I’m hoping we can do more of these. The stock is managed better because booksellers touch it and feel it within 10 ft. of their desk. The trick is traffic.”

In Washington, D.C., which was hit not only by the collapse of Borders but by the closure of the nine-store Olsson’s Books & Records local chain, Politics & Prose owner Bradley Graham said, “We’ve been barraged with offers over the last several years: to go into Union Station, Georgetown, Silver Spring, among others. But we are reluctant to do all that’s necessary for opening another new store.” Instead, P&P is partnering with local restaurant chain Busboys & Poets on five satellite stores, to be rolled out over the course of the year. On New Year’s Day, P&P opened its first location in the Brookland Busboys (as a store within a store). A second location opened on Valentine’s Day in Takoma.

The stores, which are co-branded P&P @ B&P, will carry roughly 6,000 titles, and Busboys has an events room in each restaurant that Graham plans to keep booked. “It’s a way to expand without the hassle of leases,” he explained. “We realize there are risks, that some locations will do better than others. Having several good years behind us, we’re certainly more willing [to expand]. But, hey, margins in this business are still narrow. So we’re not going to take any crazy chances.”

Seven years ago, Shane Gottwals opened his first used bookstore, Gottwals Books, in Warner Robins, Ga. After being approached by a franchiser, Gottwals decided to create his own franchise operation under the Walls of Books name, starting with one in Tifton in 2012. To date, he has opened four Gottwals stores in Georgia and four Walls of Books in other states. At present he has five stores’ worth of inventory in his warehouse and plans to use it to open another five to 10 more Walls of Books over the next 12 months.

“I see this as a prime time for opening bookstores. With used books, our margins are strong, and we can have as good a selection as a chain bookstore,” said Gottwals, who has been encouraged by sales at the newly opened Walls of Books in Zanesville, Ohio. Its first day beat the single-day sales record system wide.

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SOURCE: Publishers Weekly
Judith Rosen

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