Unchained; Brian Weese is not exactly an open book. But the Bibelot owner's underdog success against national competition tells a story of moxie, creativity and vision.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Picture a ladybug playing chicken with a Concorde jet.

No, that's not right.

Picture Kate Moss duking it out with a sumo wrestler.

Nope. Not right either.

Picture the little engine that could. The one that says, "I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can."

That's it.

Everybody knows that privately owned bookstores all over the country are being gobbled up by big bookstore chains. Everybody knows that the future of bookselling lies on the Internet. Everybody knows that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore has a future about as golden as a blacksmith shop. Brian Weese figures differently.

Right now he's likely standing in his store-to-be at the Village of Cross Keys, surrounded by boxes of books stacked to chest level. One by one, he is wrestling the boxes open, lifting out a book and, with a computerized wand, entering its title into the store's inventory. Throughout the store, employees are opening more boxes. Others are picking up books here, arranging them on shelves. By the time they are done, they'll have unpacked, counted and shelved nearly 150,000 books and 50,000 compact discs.

In two days, Weese will open Bibelot at Cross Keys, the fourth store in his growing bookstore chain and his fifth very public wager that conventional wisdom is at least partially wrong about how and where people will buy their books in the future.

In the past decade, publicly held megastore chains such as Borders Books and Music or Barnes & Noble and flourishing Internet businesses have delivered a one-two punch to privately owned bookstores. The market share for independent booksellers has fallen from 25 percent in 1995 to about 18 percent, and the effects of that drop are tangible.

At its peak in 1991, the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent book stores, had 5,100 members. After several years of sharp decline, its membership has leveled off at about 3,400 members.

But for the past four years, Weese has been going head to head with the national chains. His first bookstore, Bibelot at the Woodholme Shopping Center in Pikesville, opened in 1995. Since then, one store has become four, including venues in Timonium and Canton. There would be five stores, but a Bel Air Bibelot that opened in 1996 succumbed after two years to the competition -- a Barnes & Noble opened right across the street.

Weese appears undaunted. Not only is he set to open his newest store, but he also has plans to diversify by offering book-and-writing related goods such as greeting cards and toys. And he and a coalition of other independent booksellers are gearing up to sell books online. "The independent booksellers who have survived these last few years are very good business men and women," he says. "They've really had to respond to the customers. They've really had to work hard. And they are in a really good position to move ahead."

The Bibelot philosophy

At 7: 30 on a Tuesday evening, Bibelot at Woodholme hums with activity. The four-year-old store is 25,000 square feet and boasts an inventory of about 130,000 titles. Donna's -- the chic, locally owned coffee spot/restaurant that thus far has been a part of every Bibelot -- is packed with couples, singles, moms with kids. Shoppers dot the music department -- some are buying CDs; others, wearing headsets, are just listening. A young man sprawls in a comfortable chair near the travel books. In the back, about 40 people are listening to author Glenn Frenkel speak about his book, "Rivonia's Children," a story of South Africans who fought apartheid.

Zillions of books. Coffee. Music. Chairs in which to sit and read. Special events.

Sound familiar?

It should. The Bibelot philosophy is to combine the superstore tactics of endless selection, comfy chairs, cafes and jam-packed calendars with the benefits of the smaller independent bookstores. Weese says the concept works, though he declines to reveal sales figures. "When you are doing something great in a single location in a limited number of stores you feel the pulse of that community, and you don't have to cater to the lowest common denominator of people all over the country. You can concentrate on the needs of the customers right there," says Avin Mark Domnitz, executive director of the American Bookseller Association in Tarrytown, N.Y.

"Brian Weese is meeting the [publicly held chains] on their own ground and doing it very nicely."

Shoppers who enter Bibelot stores are greeted by tables of new fiction such as Elinor Lipman's "The Inn at Lake Devine" and Rosina Lippi's "Homestead." Nearby are displays of staff picks featuring books including "Against the Tide The Fate of The Cape Cod Fisherman" by Richard Adams Carey and "Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larson. What they don't find prominently displayed at the front door are the hottest best sellers, say, Thomas Harris' "Hannibal," or Danielle Steel's latest oeuvre.

"We tend not to put up what I call the 'usual suspects' in the front of the store," Weese says. "A customer walking in knows we have the best sellers. I'd much rather present things that customers don't know about."

All Bibelots are not alike. Each store is tailored to the population it serves. At the Bibelot at Woodholme, there's a large selection of books -- from "Haiku for Jews" to a kosher cookbook -- chosen for their potential appeal to Pikesville's large Jewish population. In Canton, customers seem to love books with a Baltimore twist, as well as books with a nautical theme. And in Timonium, books on investing do well. "The stores are like children," says Juliana Wood, director of marketing. "They all have their own personalities."

Boy Scout

Elegantly slim with vivid blue eyes, Weese is impeccably attired and impeccably polite -- as perhaps is fitting for a former protocol officer for the U.S. State Department. "Very solid. Focused," says Karin Anna, a book buyer for Bibelot. "Nothing quirky about him."

Weese, 43, is also quietly, firmly private, occasionally deflecting questions with a courteous, "I'm not sure that's relevant." Or, "I don't want to discuss that." (The latter is in response to a question about the source of his company's start-up capital.)

He will talk a little about his childhood in Rochester, N.Y. The second child in a family of four boys and a girl, he spent much of his time outdoors playing pick-up games of one sort or another. But he adds, "I was always the kid on the bus with the most books. I was always prepared in a Boy Scout sort of way."

Like the man, Weese's office, next door to the Cross Keys store, is neat and understated, revealing only a few clues to his interests. Publishing catalogs and paperwork are neatly stacked on the desk. Photographs of his six children ages 4 to 18 sit on a cabinet. Art by Miro and Stella hangs on the walls. Unsurprisingly, there's plenty to read.

At any given time, Weese may be immersed in as many as four books. "I like different books for different times and reasons. All sorts of reasons," he says. Preferred subjects include fiction for vacations, biographies and international relations. And in recent years, he has returned to the classics, poring over the works of Faulkner and Trollope. At the moment, he's reading "Hitler's Niece" by Ron Hansen, "Bookstore" by Lynne Tillman and "A Star Called Henry" by Roddy Doyle.

Weese and his wife, Elizabeth, share a love of contemporary art. Together they have acquired works by 20th-century painters including Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn, Andy Warhol and David Hockney. Now their interests are turning to sculpture, Weese says. "We usually like the same things, and often we know instantly if we love something. Rarely, if ever, has one bought something the other hadn't seen."

The couple met while living in the same dorm during their freshman year at Georgetown University in Washington. Weese majored in international relations (he graduated in 1978); later he earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Elizabeth, whose father, Alex Grass, founded the Rite Aid drugstore chain and whose brother Martin now is chairman and chief executive of the $12.6 billion company, earned a degree in business. Now, as vice president of human resources at Bibelot, she handles the accounting and personnel issues. But she says: "It's really Brian's baby, and I am just along for the ride."

In 1982, Weese joined the State Department. But after three years, three children and three moves -- Montreal to New Orleans to Brasilia, Brazil -- the Weeses had had enough of foreign service. Weese took a job with Encore Books, headquartered in Philadelphia and later in Harrisburg, Pa.

Bookselling turned out to be a good fit: He began in sales, then worked in receiving, then as an assistant manger and manager in rapid succession. Within three years, Weese was named president of Encore.

But in 1995, when Rite Aid Corp, which owned Encore, sold its 93-store bookselling division to Lauriat's Inc., Weese was out of a job. He looked around for something new to do and decided he saw a place for a Baltimore-based bookstore. "The book business was the business that I'd become passionate about. I looked around and saw that this market was clearly underserved. We -- Liz and I -- saw a niche."

Innovation

In four years, Weese's business has grown from one store to four; his staff has grown from 25 to 180. He is on the board of directors of the American Booksellers Association and has earned a national reputation as a savvy businessman.

"He's seen around the country as not only one of the premier booksellers, but one of the most innovative and creative booksellers in the world of independent bookselling," says Domnitz.

To succeed he will need all his business skills. Between Annapolis and Ellicott City, there are eight Barnes & Noble stores (and 521 nationwide). Borders Books and Music has stores in Towson and Columbia (and 272 stores nationwide).

And listen to how they describe their strategy at the Borders headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich.: "We really see the stores as fine bookstores. Each one is unique. Each one is 50 percent customized at the local level. Books you find in the Baltimore bookstore you may not find in the Hartford, Conn., store," says Ann Binkley, manager of public relations.

Or at the Barnes & Noble headquarters in New York: "Our inventory is a reflection of what customers have expressed an interest in," says Debra Williams, director of corporate communications. "The thing that makes Barnes & Noble different is attention to the needs of our customers."

Weese remains undaunted. He is prepared to compete. In two days, the fourth store opens. Under the auspices of the American Booksellers Association, Bibelot and 1,100 other independents have launched a joint marketing campaign called "BookSense," which touts the advantages of shopping at independent bookstores.

BookSense capitalizes on one of the independents' great strengths: The ability to sell books simply because customers listen to what their staffs recommend. In the past, the success of such runaway best sellers as "Bridges of Madison County" or "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" have been credited to independent booksellers. Now the 1,100 participating independents are sharing their recommendations -- and are collectively promoting them. "Despite the independents losing some of their market share, they are capable of making a book work," Weese says.

And in November, the independents will begin selling books online. Also called BookSense, the national electronic store will feature a search engine, a stock of about 1.5 million titles, gift wrapping and a best seller list. "It will be interesting to see if 'bricks and mortar' work when they become 'clicks and mortar.' Will it be the right marriage of the physical and online?" Weese says.

He adds, "Other bookstores may be centers where people can congregate, but they aren't necessarily part of the community. Bibelot is community-based and there is a sense of place, and I hope customers have a sense of ownership. People know they can reach me with a local call."

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