New owners ready to take over Ivy Bookshop

Don't call the Ivy Bookshop's new owners New Yorkers.

Sure, Ed Berlin and his wife Ann have lived in the orbit of Manhattan for more than three decades, working in corporate careers. But they insist they love Baltimore — Ed was raised in Forest Park and the couple often visit friends and family here — and they started making plans to move here this year.

Along the way, opportunity knocked. The Ivy in north Baltimore, a haven for literature lovers, was put up for sale in the summer by owner Darielle Linehan, who was ready to retire to spend more time with family. Passionate about books and the store itself, which the Berlins enjoyed shopping in, they offered to buy it from Linehan.

"We decided that the Ivy can't close," said Ed Berlin, an attorney who held technology management positions at major financial firms in New York during his career. "It just can't."

Beginning in early January, the Berlins will take over a small, profitable store that's built a reputation in Baltimore over the past decade as being the go-to place for a carefully curated selection of literary gems. The store also has about 100 events a year, with author readings and book signings, and a loyal customer base, according to Linehan.

But Linehan and the Berlins know that the store needs to continue to evolve, as larger market forces put pressure on the bookstore business. Consumers have more options than ever for buying books, from grocery store aisles to mass merchants, such as Target and Walmart.

Then there are the chain stores, such as Barnes and Noble and Books A Million, though even they are facing pressure. Borders Group Inc. slumped into bankruptcy protection and liquidation this year.

Locally, a handful of independent book stores exist that target niche genres or used books. This past year, the Daedelus Books and Music store at Belvedere Square in North Baltimore closed because of poor sales, though it still has a Columbia location and online bookstore.

The most disruptive force is electronic commerce — online book buying accounts for about a third of the book sales, according to industry statistics and experts. Consumers can buy print books from and other online stores that are often discounted.

And the rise of the electronic book and digital book readers as well as tablet computers are enticing consumers to download digital books.

The pressure on bookstores over the past decade has been intense. In 2002, there were more than 25,000 bookstores, both chain stores and independents, in the United States, according to Albert N. Greco, a Fordham University marketing professor, citing figures from the Library and Book Trade Almanac. Last year, there were around 17,000, he said.

"In an eight-year period, you lost a third," said Greco, who closely tracks the book-selling industry. "All of the forces are working against the independents."

But Greco sees a silver lining for independent bookstores that resonate in a neighborhood, cater to a community of eager readers and loyal consumers, and offer a unique experience.

"You have to bring the community into the store," said Greco. "Then you have a chance, not a guarantee, but a chance to survive."

Linehan's Ivy Bookshop did more than survive over the past decade – it thrived. She declined to say how much she sold the store for, or how much money the store earns, but she emphasized its profitability.

She started the Ivy from scratch 10 years ago, soon after Bibelot, a small Baltimore independent book chain, went into bankruptcy. Linehan saw an opportunity to fill the void that Bibelot had left.

"It was successful from the day it openened," said Linehan. "People were really ready for … a smaller, more personal environment, I think. We just never stopped."

The Ivy has carried up to 35,000 unique titles at any given time. But that amount is far less than what the chain stores and websites can offer. Again, for Linehan — and now the Berlins — the value of the Ivy is in anticipating the needs of their customers, and giving them the books they don't yet know they will want.

"For a reader, it's wonderful," said Sally Sundstrom, a Guilford resident, during a recent shopping tour at the store. "They're very knowledgeable, and I'd rather support local businesses" than the chain bookstores, she said.

Ivy customers are well-educated and discerning, according to Linehan. They want to be challenged by new titles in fiction and nonfiction.

The heart of the store is its careful selection of fiction — "the classics," Linehan said. Along one wall the authors range from Susan Abulhawa to Stefan Zweig, with authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Graham Greene and Ken Kesey in between. But Linehan says the store actually does more business in nonfiction.

Ed Berlin is ready to apply some creative entrepreneurship to the Ivy. He believes in offering customers the serendipity of finding books in a bookstore setting, guided by a staff that loves books and can learn customers' tastes.

He is eyeing tweaks and changes. For one, the Ivy Bookshop does not have a website, so building one is critical, he said. Plans for the site include a blog and a way for customers to organize their own book clubs, he said.

"You have to approach people who are web savvy," said Berlin. "You have to have an active community of readers."

Berlin also wants to incorporate digital ebook sales into the physical store, as well as through the store's new website. Independent booksellers are creating their own digital storefronts for selling Google eBooks, which helps them cater to customers who want to find books in the physical store, but download them to a digital device.

Berlin also sees the store going through a minor redesign, to accommodate seating for more than 40 people when they plan events. He also hopes to beef up the store's selection of nonfiction and current events books, to appeal to customers with a strong interest in foreign affairs.

"We're trying to build on Darielle's amazing sense of literary taste, which I don't know if we can replicate. But we're going to try."

Berlin and his wife, who live in West Orange, N.J., a suburb of New York, are planning a slow transition to Baltimore over the next half year. He'll be living and working in Baltimore three weeks out of the month. His wife, a vice president at John Wiley & Sons, a New York publishing house, expects to leave her job in the summer. They have an 18-year-old daughter who will be finishing high school next year.

The Berlins assume ownership of the store on Jan. 1. It will be closed Jan. 1-9, for training and inventory planning, and will reopen Jan. 10.

In addition to owning and operating a bookstore, Berlin said he will be an instructor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, his alma mater, where he'll teach political science courses.

Berlin and his wife met while they both worked in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. Both in their early 60s, they are girding themselves for a new life and a new challenge in Baltimore.

"If we wanted to just to make money, we probably could've invested our money in something else," said Berlin, who previously worked for Citibank, Deutsche Bank, and Thomson Financial. "But I will tell you, it will continue to be run as a profitable business. It's not a reclamation project. It's phenomenally succesful. We're going to make it more successful."