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Survival Is in the Margins For Small Booksellers

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1997



BOSTON

Tom Rider didn't blink.

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In the tumult of today's volatile book industry, he and his small, independent bookstore, "Goering's," in Gainesville, Fla. stood their ground when the juggernaut of chain bookstores came to town.

Three chain stores opened within five miles of him four years ago. Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and Media Play. But Mr. Rider is now the little guy refusing to be buried by the discounted celebrity bestsellers and Danielle Steel's tales of heavy breathing.

More comfortable than trendy

After a decade of publishing takeovers by conglomerates, the $25 billion book industry increasingly is a merchandising effort led by celebrity authors with multimillion-dollar contracts. Rider, emphasizing more-serious fiction and nonfiction, survives like a comfortable, old jacket in a world of designer suits and ties.

Rider's store has 4,500 square feet of books, just across the street from the University of Florida. Together the chains offer more than 150,000 square feet and more books than Florida has palm trees.

What happened when the chains came to Gainesville was a sudden doubling of book inventory. But books sales, according to state statistics, did not experience a commensurate surge.

The result: a cutback in inventory, more churn of books coming and going, and many more books returning to publishers unsold. The pattern has recurred in state after state.

Surviving with imagination

Rider's sales dipped almost 15 percent in the first two years after the chains arrived. But a mix of inventive promotion and careful attention to customers now has sales creeping back up - and is emblematic of how independent bookstores can survive.

Rider knew he had to act decisively to retain the customer base built over 26 years. He repainted the inside of the store, rearranged the stacks, added more-carefully selected books, and improved in-store signs.

"We also improved communications with our customers" through special ordering, a better newsletter, and more postcard mailings, says Rider. He continued radio and newspaper advertising.

To hold on to the intellectual leadership in the community, the store sponsored book-based discussions in such places as the local branch library and a church near the chain stores.

"We decided to move into their territory," Rider says. "We increased our out-of-store selling this way." And Rider continues to review books on the local public-radio station, as he has for 12 years.

In celebrating Independent Booksellers Week, Rider displayed a map of Florida with the locations of many other independent bookstores. "We offered customers a $5 discount if they could add stores to the list. It was a great talking point, and 15 locations were added."

Last chapter

Other smaller bookstores in Florida and across the US have fared less well.

The American Booksellers Association reports that in fiscal year 1994-95, nearly 200 independent bookstores in the US closed shop, up 21.6 percent from a year earlier. And the market share of bookselling by independents has dropped from 32 percent in l991 to 18 percent in l996.

And while book fans may bemoan the loss of independents, no one expects a letup in pressure from the chains.

"I really don't see this dichotomy of independents versus chains," says Steve Riggio, chief executive officer of Barnes & Noble, the nation's No. 1 book chain. "I see our company as a network of stores.... Each individual store is considered to be rooted in the community."

"National bestselling books hardly make up 3 or 4 percent of our sales," he adds. "We pay much more attention to small presses, to university press books, and mid-list books from big publishers."

Rider says a customer survey suggests the chains compete more with each other than with him. "But they are still breathing down my neck."

AN UNTATTERED SUCCESS - SO FAR

Even America's largest independent bookstore - Denver's Tattered Cover - felt heat from the chains.

In the past four years, Barnes & Noble opened five new stores in Denver and the suburbs. Media Play also opened five locations.

Tattered Cover responded with a second store in downtown Denver, with more space for arts-related events. It also put in a cafe and restaurant at the main store and extended hours at both stores.

But sales took a hit. "We knew real soon that a Barnes & Noble was only a mile away," says Neil Strandberg, manager of the original Tattered Cover store.