IF autumn leaves are falling, Christmas-gift books will soon be selling. Last year 47 percent of the population either gave or received a book during the holiday season. Traditionally, bookstores do 60 to 70 percent of their business in the last two months of the year. Retail book sales for 1990 totaled $7.2 billion.This holiday season is likely to see a repeat of last year's strong sales, says Bethany Ireland of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), with one potentially significant difference: the impact of superstores on sales. Superstores are bookstores that carry 100,000 titles or more. Major book chains like Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble and its Bookstop/Bookstar subsidiary, Crown, and Tower opened or planned to open 88 such superstores this year, according to Publisher's Weekly, the industry trade magazine. As booksellers gear up for their peak season, industry observers say superstores have the distinct advantages of large floor-space to accommodate Christmas crowds and a wide range of books to fit the tastes of almost anyone. Long the province of one-of-a-kind independent bookstores like the Tattered Cover in Denver, or Powells Books in Portland, Ore., superstores proved a model hard to resist. They are known in the trade as a "destination" store - the customer leaves the house with the express purpose of going to a particular bookstore, rather than just visiting one among other shops at a mall.
A place for browsing Superstores not only offer a huge selection - everything from the complete works of Pliny the Elder to current bestsellers. They also offer customers an outing, a place to rub ideas with book-lovers from all walks of life, as well as expert but low-key staff that can offer assistance by subject area, says Debra Wilson, vice president for store operations at Borders Book Shop, a superstore in Ann Arbor, Mich. Many superstores offer "author nights," where writers read from their works and mingle with customers, rather than just sign copies of their books. Borders' 20-year-old Ann Arbor store is the flagship of a nationwide chain of 15 superstores offering 100,000 titles. The newest store opened last week in Framingham, Mass. New bookstores grew 76 percent in the 1980s, leading to an overall total of 17,620, including chain and independently owned stores. The chains comprise 24 percent of the bookstores in the United States, the independents 76 percent. But the chains - often located in shopping malls - sell 39 percent of all books, the independents 61 percent, according to the ABA. Do superstores threaten the independents? Not necessarily. "The independent that offers something special will always keep their market," says Ms. Wilson. Building intimacy into a superstore is of critical importance, she says. This is done with arches, nooks and crannies, raised levels, a coffee shop, soft armchairs for reading and browsing, a children's section complete with special furniture. Hand in hand with intimacy is "having the best quality books we can have for our customers," says Jay Leutze, a manager at the just-opened Waterstones here in Boston, the British chain's initial superstore in the American market. Waterstones offers 150,000 titles on 21,000 square feet of floor space. The average US bookstore shelves 40,000 titles on 4,000 square feet.
Local touch The first thing one notices when entering Waterstones is that it has its own preferred-books table in addition to a bestseller table. These are books the staff selects in light of the clientele that actually come through the door, Mr. Leutze says. The biggest difference in the US, he notes, is centralized purchasing. At Waterstones, subject area supervisors on each floor order books based on computerized point-of-sale information rather than central purchasing. Superstores also buck one of the strongest recent trends in the bookselling business, a high proportion of sales coming from bestsellers. It's not that "we don't sell them, and at 30 to 40 percent discounts; it's just that bestsellers are one part of a very large whole for us," says Elizabeth Stewart of the 500,000-title Powells Books. Last holiday's surprise bestseller was the $50 companion book to the PBS television series on the Civil War. This year, two sets of anniversary books are candidates for booming sales: the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, and the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.