Small bookstores write themselves a happier ending

When Bob Contant and Terry McCoy opened their East Village bookstore 23 years ago, lexicons had yet to define phrases like superstore or dot-com.

A lot has changed since then. Today, the bright green facades of big-chain bookstores have nudged in among the neighborhood's dimly lit coffeehouses and avant-garde tattoo parlors.

But after a decade in which it looked as though chains might send independent booksellers the way of the corner hardware store, observers see signs that small bookstores are coming back.

"For a time, the decline we had was pretty steep and more than a little frightening," says Scott McKinstry, communications manager for the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a coalition that includes most US independent bookstores. "But in the past two years or so, the decline has absolutely leveled off."

One reason for the respite is the chains themselves. Many are quietly erasing the deep discounts of up to 50 percent that were a hallmark of the 1990s. Barnes & Noble and Borders recently eliminated their 10 percent hardcover discount and stopped discounting books on The New York Times bestseller list, and online superstores Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com have also raised prices. Since the online retailers charge for shipping, it's now more expensive for bookworms to browse online.

Moreover, as their competition weakens, independent booksellers are playing up their relative strengths.

St. Mark's Bookshop, the store owned by Mr. Contant and Mr. McCoy, saw an immediate decline in sales after the Barnes & Noble superstore opened just around the block four years ago.

"But what we had been doing, we just started doing more of," says Contant. "We have an emphasis on small-press literature and poetry - poetry for us is a major income section - and we're the only store with an anarchy section."

Since their focus is the antithesis of a chain store, they say, they are able to promote the genres and titles that get short shrift in mass marketing.

In order to promote the distinctiveness of the independents, the ABA began its own marketing coalition called "Book Sense," which provides information about stores around the country and even includes an e-commerce Web site.

"In Book Sense, what's being branded is uniqueness," says Mr. McKinstry. "We have all these stores banding together to say, 'Look how different we are from each other' - this is our great strength."

Wistful nostalgia

For some industry-watchers, however, concern over the independents' decline is no more than wistful nostalgia.

"We all have these wonderful, romantic notions of the good old days when you had the little proprietary, the little bookseller with the bald head and the pot of tea and the cat on the counter and all of that," says Robert Broadwater, managing director of the bookselling division of Veronis Suhler & Associates, a New York-based investment bank.

But the reason the independents have declined, Mr. Broadwater says, is not just because of superstore discounting: "They're inefficient, they cost too much, they're in bad locations, there's no parking, there's no selection."

Even so, supporters of independent bookstores see their decline as being about more than survival of the fittest. The industry has been hurt, they say, as big chains emphasize books that have a mass market appeal.

And since superstores have centralized purchasing and rely upon mass promotion, employees rarely have the intimate knowledge of books that independent proprietors have.

"If someone is putting a book in your hands because it's something they care about," says McKinstry, "that is very different from books put on the shelves because of bottom-line reasons."

Goodbye to midlist books

In addition, according to a recent study by the Authors Guild, mass marketing by the superstores has meant greater sales for blockbuster titles and specialty books, such as cookbooks and how-to's.

But this has come at the expense of so-called "midlist" books - modestly selling but high-quality, literary titles.

"In the past, an author could survive publishing 'midlist' books," says Contant. "But all that has gone by the boards. Now publishers are interested in the bottom line."

Contant and others believe the decline of independents has hurt the publication of midlist books, since they often generated an audience through personal recommendations to their customers.

Yet, as many point out, consumers will always be attracted to convenience and price. "Ultimately it's about putting stuff on shelves that people want to buy at a price and a combination of value that they can afford," says Broadwater.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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