Over-Booked

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the world of bookselling, they are either the queen B's or the killer B's. Borders. Barnes & Noble. And, most recently, the home-grown Bibelot.

To their customers, they are indeed superstores, with their deep inventory of books and music, regular appearances by authors and an inviting atmosphere for lingering, cappuccino-sipping and socializing.

But to their competitors, the smaller, independently owned stores that can't hope to match their sweep of inventory or clout in the marketplace, they are category killers, as threatening as a Home Depot is to a neighborhood hardware store or a Staples to a downtown stationery store.

Books R suddenly Us. While book superstores have been sweeping the country for most of the decade, the Baltimore area market began heating up only recently. The first Borders opened in Towson in December 1992, and had the superstore niche to itself until this year when Bibelot opened in Pikesville in April and another Borders opened in Columbia in May. And more may be on the way, if any of the current proposals and vague plans come to fruition -- a Borders in the long-vacant Power Plant downtown and more Bibelots. Everyone seems to expect Barnes & Noble, the nation's largest such chain with 308 stores, to open one closer to Baltimore, but currently there's only the one in Annapolis.

Nationally, an estimated 40 independent book shops closed in the past year in the face of a superstore -- or sometimes, more than one such store -- opening nearby. Here, it's a music store that has blinked first. An Die Musik, which five years ago became the first store in town with listening stations, is fleeing Towson next month to get away from Borders as well as mega-discounters like Best Buy and Circuit City.

"I'm driving a Volkswagen Beetle and trying to get myself on the same racetrack as the Lexuses," says Henry Wong, who plans to move An Die Musik to Charles Street downtown and add the now ubiquitous in-store cafe. A year ago, his other store, in Ellicott City, closed after just 1 1/2 years in business because of growing competition including Westview Mall's Planet Music, a music superstore. "I have to get away from the suburbs."

The area's independent bookstores are grimly holding their ground for now, trying to find ways to keep a share of the market and hoping that the titans will be so busy clashing with each other over the same suburban customers that they have a shot at everyone else.

"I think the way this will shake down is these superstores will create a wide spectrum across the board for independents to come in under them," says Jimmy Rouse, owner of Louie's Bookstore Cafe in downtown Baltimore. "People are going to be tired of going to malls, seeing the same choices, the same formats. It's going to become boring."

Louie's didn't start feeling the superstore pinch until this year -- the opening of Borders didn't hurt sales, but now, with Bibelot's entry in the market, his book sales are suffering.

Mr. Rouse's solution is to begin offering author readings and signings, something it had done in the earlier years of the 14-year-old bookstore/cafe. Louie's also plans to advertise and, wonder of wonders for a place with a famously indifferent staff, start putting more emphasis on customer service.

From a consumer standpoint, it is hard to complain about too many bookstores. Who isn't for more books, especially since the Baltimore area book market was fairly spotty before Borders arrived. The locally owned Gordon's Booksellers, for example, was already pulling back even before the superstores arrived -- former stores in Harborplace and Westview Mall are long gone, and the chain has just two remaining shops, at the Rotunda in Baltimore and Kenilworth in Towson.

Meaningful entertainment

"What's not to like about bookstores anyway, and now you get music as well and a place to eat," says Nanny Warren, organizer of tomorrow night's "Book Bash," a fund-raiser for Baltimore County Literacy Works that will be held at Bibelot.

Book Bash's instant popularity and continued growth parallels that of the superstores. It went from drawing about 450 persons its first year to 1,200 last year, attracted to the idea of meeting local and regional authors, musicians and media personalities in a festive bookstore setting.

"The '80s seemed a time when people talked about money all the time. Entertainment was the going to the mall, buying things. Now, it's the bookstore. People want to learn, they want to spend money on things that make sense, not necessarily fancy things," Ms. Warren says.

Borders had held Book Bash its first two years, but the store and the event seem to have outgrown each other. Borders says it was proud to help raise more than $85,000 in two years for Literacy Works, but now wants to spread its promotional dollars around a little more.

With Borders opening its music wing in November 1994, musical events are taking up a greater share of its calendar. While the store still offers readings and signings, and its monthly poetry readings are popular, it stopped sponsoring book discussions due to waning interest. "Unlike attending other events, you'd have to make a point of almost studying to participate in them," said Chris Brenchley, community relations coordinator for the Towson Borders. "We hope in '96 to start those up again, though, and maybe work the cafe in, offer free coffee and dessert specials, make it more of a social event."

Widening the bounds

It is perhaps this carefully crafted social side of the superstores that sets them as much apart as their giant inventories from the B Daltons and Waldenbooks found in shopping malls. Bookstores are no longer just a place to buy a book.

This year, anywhere from 700 to 1,000 persons are expected to pay $25 in advance or $30 at Bibelot to attend Book Bash and mingle with the likes of Stephen Dixon and Madison Smartt Bell, the two Baltimore-based authors who recently garnered National Book Award nominations. Among the 60 "literati and glitterati" also on hand are Julian Barnes, Gerald Duff, Howard Norman, Elsa Walsh, Robert Timberg, The Sun's Washington deputy bureau chief, and Stephen Hunter, The Sun's movie critic. Food will be provided by Donna's, of course, which has a restaurant on-site at Bibelot, as well as Paolo's, Spike & Charlie's, the Classic Catering People and others.

As the newest in town, Bibelot took on the event for much the same reason Borders had -- literacy is a natural cause for a bookstore, and the event provides great exposure for a new store to exactly the kind of people likely to patronize it.

Bibelot is unusual in that it looks like the chain superstores, with a vast space full of books and music, a restaurant and the library-slash-living-room atmosphere. But it is independently and locally owned, by Brian Weese, a former executive with the Encore book chain.

Superstores have not been embraced by everyone, of course. They've been around long enough to have drawn a backlash from those who see them as pre-packaged, cookie-cutter behemoths that will drive out the independents. Some of that is the predictable resentment toward the 800-pound gorillas that can sit anywhere they want.

But there is reason to worry about market saturation, some say.

"Let's say you read X-number of books per year. If six more bookstores open, are you going to read six times as many books?" Steven Baum asks rhetorically. "The market cannot absorb that many books."

Selling local flavor

Mr. Baum, owner of the 26-year-old Greetings & Readings store in the Loch Raven area, has held his ground as book cycles have come and gone, expanding from 1,800 to 37,000 square feet. It doesn't have the upscale cachet of a Borders or a Bibelot, but it does seem to know its market: There are books, of course, but also a huge Hallmark card and party supply section, another big area of Hummel and collectibles, and lots of Cal Ripken and pope memorabilia. And a year ago, it added a cafe, with light fare, lots of desserts and cappuccinos in flavors that would make a purist blanche.

It is entirely Baltimore, and specifically, northeastern Baltimore, a place where Chef Tell is more likely to make a book signing appearance than, say, British novelist Julian Barnes.

"If you go into Borders here, then in Philadelphia or Seattle, what are you going to see? Or maybe it has 'Barnes & Noble' on the front door," Mr. Baum said. "In the very beginning, it was a unique entity. Now they're plopping them everywhere."

Where they are locating, as well as how frequently, is causing concern.

"They claim they're not coming in and targeting small independents, but they end up in places where there are strong independents," says Nora Rawlinson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly and a former Baltimore County librarian. "In many cases, the independents made the market that they're capitalizing on. I wish I'd see them opening up new territories instead of going where there already is a good bookstore."

Creating successes

Indeed, much of what the superstores do so well was done well first, if in less glossier fashion, by independents: the author readings and signings, the serious inventory that goes beyond the best-seller lists, the encouragement of book discussion clubs.

For good or bad, Ms. Rawlinson says, it was the independents which created the out-of-nowhere phenomenon of Robert James Waller, whose middle-aged weeper, "The Bridges of Madison County," got its initial boost from bookstore owners recommending it to their readers. Other odd-bird books -- the most often cited example is "Smilla's Sense of Snow" by Peter Hoeg -- similarly can thank the independents for at least some of their success.

"Independent bookstores are idiosyncratic. You can stock books just because you like them," says Louie's Mr. Rouse. A small store like his, which carries about 20,000 books compared to the Towson Borders' 150,000, doesn't need to sell huge numbers of books to make a profit.

If the independents are driven out by the superstores, Mr. Rouse argues, there will be less diversity within those huge inventories because there will be fewer buyers making decisions on what stores should carry.

Independents do have less and less of the market these days -- an estimated 19 percent now, compared to 58 percent in 1972.

There is, of course, a tendency to romanticize the small, independent bookstore. In reality, Ms. Rawlinson said, some needed the competition, and some may deserve to go out of business for failing to address the changing trends in the marketplace.

"As painful as it is," she says, "there are many people in the business who are not very good business people."

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