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Booksellers expand, open new stores despite downturn


There is a conventional wisdom among booksellers that they will fare well during an economic downturn. After all, they say, Waldenbooks was founded during the Great Depression.

"When a slowdown comes, people can't afford the bigger things and they tend to buy the smaller things like books," says Michael Chaim, manager of Borders Book Shop in Rockville. "Books are very individualized, so peoplefeel like they are still giving special gifts."

Perhaps that explains the relative fervor with which several book merchants are still expanding and opening new locations while most other retailers are staying put or retrenching.

Borders, part of a 13-store chain based in Ann Arbor, Mich., opened eight months ago with great fanfare in Rockville just as the economy was becoming sluggish. The store carries a huge (( inventory of more than 100,000 titles in its vast space, with titles ranging from best sellers to the obscure.

And, in stark contrast to this Christmas season of markdowns and promotions, Borders does not offer any special holiday sales. Rather, it sticks to its usual slim discount of 10 percent on hard-covers and 30 percent on best sellers.

"We don't expect to be immune from a recession, but I think we will fare better than other retailers," says Mr. Chaim. "We've come into a market where discounting is a factor, butwe counter that with selection and service."

Overall, book sales are bound to suffer in a sluggish economy, but stores with a clear target market could thrive in the lean buying times ahead, according to the American Booksellers Association in New York.

New graph: And target doesn't necessarily mean small. Borders' niche is as a large bookstore focused on providing high service and lots and lots of titles. But its stores are not in malls, it doesn't handle leases in department stores, and it doesn't have newsstands or textbook stores.

Landover-based Crown Books recently opened four new Super Crown stores in Maryland and Virginia, each with three times as many titles as traditional Crown shops and a more upscale setting for shoppers. Crown also reported a 12 percent increase in sales in its third quarter, which ended Oct. 31, compared with the same period a year ago.

Some smaller book operations with well-defined niches in the Baltimore area are also reporting fairly strong business despite the sluggishness in the general economy.

Lambda Rising, a gay and lesbian bookstore on West Chase Street, recently expanded from 323 square feet to almost 1,200-square feet on the first floor of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. The store expects its sales to increase 50 percent from the $175,000 in annual revenues the store has experienced.

"What we sell here is a part of a person's culture and identity," says manager Jack Garman. "So, we get more sales here then we think we'd get if we were just another bookstore in slow times."

Pyramid Books, with headquarters in Washington, opened a branch in Mondawmin Mall in September. The five-store chain sells books by and about people of African descent.

On a trial basis, it has also rented a space on Reisterstown Road for the Christmas season and is scheduled to open a store in San Diego. this week.

"We are tapping a market that has not been tapped, and so sales are steady," Pyramid President Hodari Abdul-Ali says.

Several area bookstores say sales of children's books have remained particularly strong despite the slowdown and that sales of business-information books and technology books are selling well, too.

"When the economy slows down, people tend to buy books with an emphasis on training and productivity," says Lee Weisbecker of VentanaPress in Chapel Hill, N.C.. "The sales are not only employee-driven but company-driven as well."

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