Indie local booksellers still face challenges — even with their big box competitors disappearing

Sunday, June 26, 2011 at 7:05pm
By Philip Nannie
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Fred Koller (Jude Ferrara/SouthComm) 

When Phyllis and David Myers of Weatherford, Texas, stopped by Landmark Booksellers in downtown Franklin last month, the husband-and-wife ministry team didn’t expect to find the two books of rare children’s music they desperately wanted for their adult son, a collector. 

But after considering the price of each, the couple placed both volumes back on the shelf. Joel Tomlin, Landmark’s owner, noticed and asked the obviously disappointed pair why they didn’t buy the books. 

“Well, we thought they were priced just a little high, especially since one book is much smaller than the other one,” Phyllis Myers said. 

Phyllis said she’d planned to not spend more than $10 to $13 for each book and was reluctant to pay the $25 sticker price. 

“I’ll tell you what,” Tomlin said. “How about I sell both of them to you for $25?” 

The Myers were obviously surprised, especially Phyllis. They weren’t sure why the owner of these rare volumes would negotiate so freely and willingly, especially given their lack of interest in buying anything else. But the couple left Landmark with a good feeling about the store and Franklin in general. 

Tomlin said the spur-of-the-moment price adjustment is simply part of the bookselling business in these tough economic times. 

“All I know is, it’s the end of the day, and up until five minutes ago, I hadn’t sold any books,” Tomlin said. “Now, I’ve just sold two.” 

Welcome to the precarious state of independent bookselling in Middle Tennessee. Running a niche bookstore in the early 21st century isn’t for the faint of heart, and it certainly isn’t about profit. It’s become a public service of sorts, a mission to share the passion and love for books that calls for total dedication to a cause where the financial going is tough and the emotional drain severe. 

And while it’s tempting to look at the decline of large-store chains as giving local booksellers a big boost — think of community banks feasting on clients roiled by regional-bank mergers — that’s not the case. 

Both the Barnes & Nobles of the world and the locally based book retailers are having to face up to the immense power of the Internet.

 

Bibliophiles here were stunned in November, when Nashville’s beloved and long-standing Davis-Kidd Booksellers announced it would close its doors before the end of 2010. The store’s owner since 1997, Ohio-based Joseph-Beth, filed for bankruptcy to slim down and restructure its debt load. It now runs only five stores in Ohio and Kentucky. 

In short order, two other big industry names found themselves in hot water. Borders Group Inc. filed for Chapter 11 in February and has since closed more than 200 stores, including all but two in Middle Tennessee. And Barnes & Noble Booksellers is in the process of selling to billionaire John Malone at an 81 percent discount to sales. Malone, the majority shareholder of Liberty Media Group, has offered about $1 billion to purchase the chain and is expected to reposition it primarily around its Nook e-reader. 

That strategy is an attempt to meet market changes head-on. Local independents such as Tomlin have for years been making similar moves one sale at time, reading customers’ body language and negotiating prices all while attempting to stay a step ahead of the book-buying public’s changing tastes. 

Fred Koller, the founder and owner of Rhino Booksellers, said his primary goal is to get books from the shelves of his locations on Charlotte Avenue or Granny White Pike onto the shelves of local book lovers. And when those book buyers feel it’s time to part with those books, Koller said he hopes they’ll return to Rhino so the process can begin again. 

“I want good books circulating in the community,” Koller said. “One thing I really try to do is price our inventory as fairly as possible.” 

Koller is an author and has been collecting books since his early days in California, where he began what turned out to be a successful run at songwriting. He also is well-known in the Nashville music community and parlays that connection to the world of bookselling. He’s sold books most of his adult life. He came to Nashville in 1972 and opened his Green Hills store at 4006 Granny White Pike just before Sept. 11, starting with an estimated 3,000 volumes. His inventory is now about 100,000 volumes between the two locations. But he said the number of books is largely irrelevant. 

“It’s really about the type and kind of books you have and not how many,” Koller said. 

Landmark’s Tomlin came to the industry after a successful real estate career. He chose bookstore ownership over other endeavors so he and his wife could do something together after their kids had left the house. In 2005, he jumped into the business by purchasing the complete 60,000-book inventory of Dad’s Old Bookstore in Green Hills. 

The going has been tough. Tomlin acknowledged his intent was never to make a lot of money. And so far, that goal has been achieved. On the positive side, Tomlin said he’s amassed a core group of customers who will come in, spend several thousand dollars and depart carrying boxes full of books. 

“That doesn’t happen every day, of course,” Tomlin said. “But it’s nice when it does happen.” 

Neither Tomlin nor Koller would discuss annual revenue, but it’s apparent both are compensated in forms other than cash. Tomlin said no one enters the bookselling business to get rich. The pain of suffering through dismal selling environments has to be counterbalanced. 

For Tomlin, it’s family. For Koller, it’s a deep and abiding passion for the business (although he’s had a degree of financial success). He purchased his Charlotte Avenue building and successfully recovered from a fire at the Granny White store in the late 1990s. Those two events portend success by most any standard. Still, Koller said, he’s not raking in the money. 

“We employ a couple of folks, and we keep the lights on,” Koller said.

 

A familiar Nashville name wants to do the same. 

Bestselling author Ann Patchett and business partner Karen Hayes, a former Random House representative, have joined forces to create Parnassus Books. Hayes said they’re still looking for the ideal space for a store they hope will fill the gap left by Davis-Kidd. 

In a recent interview with Margaret Renkl, editor of Chapter 16 (the literary website and arm of Humanities Tennessee), Patchett and Hayes said their goal was to bring national attention both to their bookstore and the state of independent bookstores nationwide. 

“I still really believe in this, and I think that it’s a business that can work on a human-sized scale,” Patchett said. 

Patchett and Hayes say they don’t believe bookstores in general are dead or dying — just certain kinds. Their philosophy is simple: A bookstore can work as long as it isn’t the size of a department store, and there is a passion for the product built in. 

“There were always plenty of people buying books in Davis-Kidd and in Borders, but 30,000 square feet is too much bookstore,” Patchett said. 

Still, Patchett and Hayes intend to follow in the path of Davis-Kidd by offering sideline and non-book items. But Hayes said the goal is to keep non-book items to no more than 20 percent of the store’s inventory. 

Sara Lee Woods, the Bookwoman side of Bookman/Bookwoman in Hillsboro Village, also is expanding her offerings. After starting with a mail-order book business in the mid-1990s, Woods and her husband and partner, attorney Larry Woods, dove into the retail world by purchasing their building on 21st Avenue. 

After years of following in the tradition of most independent used booksellers, Woods took a different turn in January by offering New York Times best-sellers and reporting the sales of these books to the Times. Combined with a renewed focus on book signings, author readings and publisher roundtables, the move has rejuvenated her outlook and business. 

“We’ve already seen very positive results from our expansion and are excited about what lies ahead,” Woods said. 

This isn’t the first time Woods has tried something new. Five years back, she started buying books for book clubs. Like hosting events, the idea was another effort at servicing an evolving and now growing client base. 

 

Most independent booksellersaren’t as interested in selling as many books as possible to as many people as possible. They display a limited number of copies of even popular works. The idea is to get the “right” kind of book into the hands of a core customer who’ll come back for the experience of discovering that special title. 

Koller said his business model is to locate and foster a group of 300 to 500 used-book lovers who shop with him. Building such a customer group is the foundation for a successful independent used bookstore. 

But in every line of business, regardless of sector, there’s always a maverick, the one entrepreneur who does things a bit differently — sometimes to the consternation but often to the amazement of competitors. 

In Nashville, the wild card is McKay’s Used Books and CDs on Charlotte Pike. Even a cursory visit provides a quick introduction to blue-collar bookselling. Lines of folks — many of whom might not be considered typical readers at other stores — haul boxes of books to the receiving counter after placing them in the required blue plastic bins. One manager, who asked for anonymity because of company policy, said the Charlotte store sells 10,000 items — mostly books — every day it’s open. 

“No matter how you look at it, McKay’s is an amazing thing,” Tomlin said. “You simply can’t argue with success.” 

 

Despite Woods’ best effortsto diversify her revenue stream, she knows the future is uncertain. The main culprit is the same seemingly unstoppable force that helped take down Borders and maim Barnes & Noble: the Internet. 

“It’s the unknown element in all of this,” Woods said. 

Tomlin and Koller both said the continuing development of the Web could have a big negative effect on their businesses. Tomlin said 70 percent of his clients come to Franklin’s Main Street from outside Williamson County. Many well-heeled local residents, he said, “are more inclined, because of their affluence and education, to purchase books from the Internet.”

But at least one local storeowner shrugs his shoulders at Web doomsday talk. Books at Cummins Station owner Brock Mehler, who also practices law from his bookstore, said he’s not worried. Yes, many people buy and sell their inventories online, but he said it’s an avenue that needs to be co-opted, not confronted, and used to build a broader customer base.

“I buy and sell on the Internet, just like they do,” Mehler said. “And if you love books, that should be OK.” 

And if you want to recruit your next generation of customers, it’s a must. Local book scout Carl Black has been in the business since 1989 and at one time or another supplied all of the independent bookstores in the area. 

Interviewed while dodging a fierce and sudden rain outside the doors of Bookman/Bookwoman, Black said the Web is the great unknown, and its effect on independent booksellers is a mystery for now.

“The problem is that the generations coming up are ‘legacy-free’ and don’t connect to a common collection of books and authors shared by everyone,” Black said.

That increased individuality calls for greater flexibility than before. From a marketing perspective, word of mouth won’t do the job it used to, and a beefier Web presence seems to be a given. But cultivating new audiences requires extra money that might not be available. 

The message is, if you want to be in the business of selling books on a small scale, you’d better love books with a passion that can carry you through the tough times when money is scarce. One nagging refrain that emerged from the loss of Davis-Kidd was that so many of us hadn’t been buying a few books from the store on a regular basis. If more of us had, Davis-Kidd might still be here, albeit likely under a new owner — or so the thinking went. 

But as Chapter 16’s Renkl wrote recently in a powerful essay, the Davis-Kidd that died in December wasn’t the one that lived in Grace’s Plaza. Now it looks like Parnassus will give Nashville another shot at a local bookstore. Patchett and Hayes are, as Renkl put it, looking to bring back a portion of our soul that was lost. It would behoove us to remember that a healthy soul comprises more than one memory.  

2 Comments on this post:

By: dargent7 on 6/27/11 at 5:52

Excellent article.

By: SMMorris65 on 7/1/11 at 8:37

Great article. I just moved to the Franklin area and went in to Landmark and it was such a warm environment. Excited there is a new indie store opening up in Nashville proper too! Much needed for such a big city.