Chain, Independent Bookstores at War

By Flannery, William | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

Chain, Independent Bookstores at War


Flannery, William, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


A big problem in the bookstore business is not paper cuts, but cut-throat competition.

The chain and independent bookstores are in a brutal sales battle in St. Louis and around the country.

"There may be another shake-out coming," said Barry Leibman, co-owner of Left Bank Books at 399 North Euclid Avenue in the Central West End.

Paul Schoomer agrees the business is getting nasty. "The book business isn't fun anymore," said Schoomer, owner of Paul's Books at 6691 Delmar Boulevard, a 22-year-old institution in the University City Loop.

"There has also been a cheapening of the product," Schoomer said. "People are shopping price. There's a million and a quarter books in print. And people are looking for good deals. That wasn't the case years ago."

Schoomer said he has many loyal customers, but the book market is limited in St. Louis, compared to larger cities.

"Anybody's growth is at someone else's expense," Schoomer said.

Schoomer, Leibman and other booksellers argue that the change is due to technology and new types of marketing.

"A whole bunch of things have changed - the advent of computers, the advent of the mall stores and category killer stores," Schoomer said.

While computerization is expensive, it has helped small stores like Paul's and Left Bank compete by allowing better tracking of inventory, costs and profit.

"I know exactly what I have and how much I've sold and I know it immediately," Schoomer said.

Computerization allows Schoomer to reorder faster and buy a smaller number of books initially, thus lowering costs.

But the rise of category killers - the massive super stores like Barnes & Noble and Library Ltd. in Clayton - has made it harder to stay in business.

Barnes & Noble opened its first 20,000-square-foot super store in St. Louis 13 months ago. The New York-based book chain is planning to open a second store in Des Peres early next year.

Mall stores traditionally are much smaller, with a more limited selection of books.

Ironically, Schoomer said, the mall book stores have not been as big a threat to privately owned bookstores as first believed a decade ago.

"The customers are different and their staying power is not as good - there's high turnover" because of high mall rents, Schoomer said.

Avin M. Domnitz agrees. He is the president of American Booksellers Association, the national trade group for independent bookstores.

"The mall bookstores are not doing well," Domnitz said. "Traditionally, most malls work on a 40-percent margin" and bookstores are much tighter.

Domnitz said things get worse if there are two bookstores in a single mall. Besides high rents, mall bookstores often suffer from high turnover among employees and managers and limited title selections.

The small independent bookstore - like the neighborhood hardware store - traditionally will get regular customers who want personalized service, Domnitz said.

Leibman agrees, and added that the corporate owners of the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks book chains have been closing mall stores around the nation.

"Kmart has recently decided to close a number of Waldenbooks stores as an attempt to offer another public offering for their Border's chain" of large book and record stores, Leibman said.

But the so-called category killers, like Border's and Barnes & Noble super stores, do present a problem for independents because they offer a wider selection and deeper discounts.

Books on The New York Times bestseller list often are discounted. Barnes & Noble and Library Ltd. discount by 30 percent off list price - which means they break even or lose money on the books. Bestsellers are loss leaders to get people into the store.

Smaller stores like Paul's and Left Bank discount about 10 percent from list price. …

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