Independent bookstores in New Orleans say they're thriving
Published: Sunday, May 29, 2011, 8:57 AM
It's been more than a decade since Joe Fox stole Kathleen Kelly's customers before stealing her heart in the romantic comedy "You've Got Mail," which brought national attention to the plight of independent booksellers as they began to battle with big-box book retailers.
Fox, played by Tom Hanks, owned Fox Books, a chain of "mega" book retailers similar to Borders or Barnes & Noble. Kelly, Meg Ryan's character, fought futilely to stop the chain from forcing her family-owned The Shop Around the Corner to close.
The story was not all that uncommon, then, as large-scale bookstores with comfortable chairs and coffee shops expanded feverishly and independent bookstores closed in their wake.
But today, as their larger competitors have faltered under economic strain and technological advancements, some local independent bookstores are finding ways to defy the dire forecasts of a decade ago and thrive.
"Ten years ago, people were doubting the future of independent bookstores," said Tom Lowenburg, owner of Octavia Books. "We think that we've been vindicated. There's growing support and recognition for the value in what we do."
Take Maple Street Book Shop. The 47-year-old Uptown store for new and used books is thriving, with plans to add two additional locations.
"We have a very loyal backing," owner Donna Allen said. "And there's been a resurgence of support in the past couple years."
Allen said she isn't certain what the specific drivers are but suspects there is a growing need for community-based bookstores that would draw business in the same way that neighborhood coffee shops do.
"I think there's space. There's room," Allen said referring to the local booksellers market. "It's a big risk. It's a major financial risk. A lot of people understandably would not want to do this."
Branching out in the city
Maple Street is opening a new store in Mid-City on Ponce de Leon Street and another on St. Claude Avenue in a multiuse building called The Healing Center. Both sites will sell new and used books, but the products will vary from location to location and be dictated by the customers of each site. The St. Claude site is scheduled to open at the end of June, with the Mid-City location following at the end of summer. The bookstore will almost double its staff when the new stores open, growing from seven to 12.
The effort to expand began in earnest two years ago when two nearby bookstores closed, prompting Allen to separate her business into two stores at one location. One sells used books, and the other new.
It wasn't until a month ago, however, that Allen was presented with the opportunity to expand beyond the Maple Street location.
Maple Street, however, isn't the lone indicator that the doom and gloom attached to the future of independent bookstores has shifted to a much sunnier outlook.
"The last two years we have certainly seen an increase in our membership, which is one way we can gauge the strength of the independent bookstores," said Meg Zelickson Smith, a spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association, a trade organization whose membership includes hundreds of independent bookstores.
Before last year, the association's membership declined for 10 to 15 years. In 2010, it remained flat, Smith said. Finally in this year, as compared with last year, there was an 8 percent gain, or 100 bookstores.
"I'm not going to tell you that every single independent is doing well," Smith said. "The ones that are doing well are doing well because they are envisioning a new model."
Smith said she has seen independents begin selling higher-priced rare books, used books, specialty gifts and even trying their hand as book consignment shops as a way to differentiate themselves and draw business.
"There are a lot of things happening and a lot of changes going on even as we speak," Smith said. "The mood right now is one of cautious optimism. There are lots of opportunities."
Shakeup at the top
The transformation of independent booksellers comes as the two big chain stores once predicted to crush them are struggling. Barnes & Noble, in a bid to stay afloat, has invested heavily in its electronic reader, Nook.
Meanwhile, Borders Group Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February and subsequently closed about 200 stores, including the two it operated in the New Orleans area.
Both have faced stiff competition from online retailer and steep discounter Amazon. While Amazon still competes for business with independent booksellers, the independents are better equipped to adjust to the competition and seek out niches.
"What we're finding is that the kinds of problems that led to the collapse of Borders and some other large stores, it sets up a situation where a small store can make adjustments to the market easily," Smith said.
Britton Trice, who owns Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans, saw an opportunity as Borders departed. Shortly after retailer announced that it would close, he listed his Prytania Street shop on the Internet coupon service Groupon, hoping customers looking for a new favorite book purveyor would be enticed. They were.
"Business has been great the last few months," Trice said. Business is better than ever."
Trice said sales at Garden District are up 20 percent this year as compared with last year.
Tom Lowenburg, who owns Octavia Books near the shuttered St. Charles Avenue Borders, held a community forum after the mega-book retailer announced it was closing. It was a time to introduce his shop to new customers and find out what they wanted from a bookstore.
Lowenburg said the store has had "a little extra bounce" in its step with the chain is gone.
"We're attracting some people who may have missed us before," Lowenburg said. "We have a lot of loyal customers, but new people are always finding us as well."
The chain's closure, however, was not behind Maple Street's decision to branch out, Allen said.
"If the Borders were still open I would still have done it," she said. "The opportunity arose, and I jumped on it."
Catering to neighbors
The independent bookstores are all quick to point out what sets them apart from their neighbors. Oddly, the answer is always the same: a focus on community.
As Gladin Scott, Maple Street's manager put it: "We want to be a resource for the community," Gladin said. "For us, it's not just about selling books, it's about being a part of the community."
The bookstore hosts book club meetings, author signings and musical guests. It averages about five events per month, with more in the fall, Allen said.
Garden District hosts 75 to 100 book signings a year and is a community meeting place, Trice said.
"Consumers are really becoming aware of shopping locally," Trice said. "We try to educate people on that."
Like the others, Octavia Books reaches customers by offering book signings, events and personalized service.
"I think that we just had to pay special attention to making an inviting place with up-to-date kind of activity," Octavia's owner Tom Lowenburg said.
While their offerings are similar, what essentially separates the independent bookstores from one another is that they serve different customers, different neighborhoods and different tastes. Smith said that is a trend she has seen taking root in New York City, where several new bookstores have opened in Brooklyn recently.
"The more neighborhood- and community-oriented, the more loyal their customer base is," Smith said.
Maple Street is banking on that local connection in its expansion.
"Maple Street has been more of a neighborhood bookstore, so we're sticking with that," Allen said. "We want to go into neighborhoods that don't have bookstores and provide one."
Jaquetta White can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3494.
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