Independent vs. Chain Bookstores

Independent vs. Chain Bookstores

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Maria Fitzsimons is hardly visible. She is flipping furiously through an issue of Entertainment Weekly searching for an article on the latest pop princess, her head practically in the magazine that is almost dipping into her overflowing glass of diet coke.

She is sitting comfortably by the bar at Trident Bookstore located on 338 Newbury St. As her pile of books and magazines grows so does her apprehension.

“I wish this place didn’t close so early, there are hardly any fully stocked bookstore cafes in Boston,” says Fitzsimons. “I love that you could read all you want drink coffee and still have the magazines to browse through.” Trident is open daily from 9 a.m. to midnight.

Fitzsimons’ search for a bookstore to accommodate her needs is nothing new. The recent closing of the Spencer’s Mystery Bookstore on Newbury Street, is a ringing reminder of the sad reality of most small bookstores. They are in competition to stay alive against the giants of book selling such as Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.

Exploring Boston’s most youth-based neighborhoods, books are sold everyhere -- from the Virgin Megastore to Urban Outfitters. But bookstores that cater to the reader and make them feel at home is hardly a business that is profiting. Visiting bookstores all over the local Boston area made one thing apparent, local book retailers don’t just sell books anymore, they sell art, food, and the business itself.

Before jumping into the nitty gritty of how these small bookstores stay open, we have to look at why they are having a problem. It is recognized by readers all over the world for its green lettered logo and very extensive stock of, well, books. You guessed it, Barnes & Noble.

Barnes and Noble is the competition to beat. Barnes & Noble, Inc. is the #1 bookseller in the United States with no surprises involved. According to Hoovers.com, Barnes & Noble operates 690 stores in 49 states under names such as Barnes & Noble, Bookstop and Bookstar. It also operates 260 mall stores using the name B. Dalton, Doubleday and Scribners. If that is not enough to understand why bookstores are closing; there is more.

B&R has a video game chain under its belt. Gamestar a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble and is the #1 U.S. video game retailer. There is also a little company -- BarnesandNoble.com. Barnes & Noble, Inc. now owns 75% of the web site and plans to buy the rest of the shares and take the company totally private.

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Beyond the numbers, what makes this bookstore giant live up to its name, is its ranking #318 in the Fortune 500 list, it basically has everything.

The Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center in Boston is a very extensive place. With a wide entrance, the customer is greeted with a hello from the security guard and simultaneously is bombarded by titles and selections of books.

Sting’s new autobiography, “The Vice guide to Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll,” and “The Cat in the Hat” is all displayed on nearby hip-level tables. Framed by an unsettling overhead light that almost blinds an elderly woman flipping through a periodical in the magazine rack.

With two Starbucks outlets located in the store, and a CD listening area, this store has all the amenities to take the book selling world and leave the rest in the dust.

“People come into these bookstores, who are intimidated by the independents,” said Claudia Sorsby, a sales associate at Barnes and Noble, and fellow book enthusiast. “Barnes and Noble have a way of doing things. You put popular things in the back to draw people back.”

With the holiday season closing in, the bookstore is arranged in a way to cater to everyone’s needs. No one feels left out or taken care off. “Bookstores can be very intimidating, very symbiotic,” says Sorsby.

Not intimidating enough, the place is packed with children and screaming babies, especially in the kids section, which is settled in the last nook of the store, far from the entrance.

“This is purely for safety, your kid is much less likely to wonder out of the store, if the children's section is in the back, and it makes the parents wonder throughout the store, where they will be bombarded with different book titles, which may interest them,” said Sorsby.

Barnes and Noble closes at 11 and Maria Fitzsimons has apparently chosen the right place to eat and look for books. It is 10 o’clock and Fitzsimons is still trying to concentrate on her article, but is side tracked by the waffle topped with ice cream and dripping with syrup coming her way.

Back in Trident Bookstore the surroundings are reminiscent of an old French cafe. Trident is a broad space with industrial lighting and yellow tinted walls with art hanging on the wall from local artist Jill M. Poole.

Every month a different artist from the New England area could push for the spot to be featured as the monthly artist whose art graces the walls of one of Boston’s most frequented bookstores.

“Boston’s Alternative,” Trident Books and Cafe was opened in Boston in 1984 in the same location where it stands today. Established by Bernie and Gail Flynn it started in reaction to the end of the "hippie turned back-to-the-lander, turned Buddhist, turned entrepreneur" sort of era of the 1970s.

The idea of a bookstore cafe came about because “at that time in Boston there were very few places to sit down with a fine cup of coffee and linger over a conversation or a book,” said Trident Booksellers & Cafe web site. Simple wood four top tables line the bookstore today. Like any bookstore the shelves are stocked with new releases, but there is something different about this store. The store is catering to a certain type of reader.

“The motivation is what customers want and what is moving and not moving,” said one of the store's few managers, Will.

This is not a bookstore for your conservative, but for your hipster boyfriend interested in reading about Vespa’s or for your arty aunt who can’t get enough gardening books for the city. Small bookstores are taking new directions in selling books; they are catering to a certain type of person.

“We are not trying to take over anyone, like Barnes & Noble’s is,” said Will. “That is the reason we will not expand, we are doing quite all right for our little store, we have been here for 20 years, that is why people come here, we are truly the only real Boston’s Alternative.”

Since Barnes & Noble have every section covered, smaller stores like Trident are focusing on specific subjects, in this case, an alternative reader. The one thing the two bookstores do have in common is that people sometimes come to both stores looking for similar things, and those are the things that are moving the book selling market, with Barnes and Noble winning out.

The best selling book in the country is “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown. It is the king of books throughout the country, small bookstore or big chain booksellers. “The Code” as they call it has even taken over the Internet market as well.

Amazon. com is the lazy person’s dream home bookstore. From magazines, to bestsellers, CDs, DVDs, and videos not to mention, toys, tools, apparel, food, prescription drugs and film processing. It even has an assorted collection of used, material to choose from.

Amazon.com has turned into the world’s place to just about buy anything, giving independent bookstores as well as conglomerates such as Barnes and Noble some competition. Founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, CEO, amazon.com has grown 26.0% this past year in profit, and stands # 407 on the Forbes 500 list.

To survive in this web of literature, bookstores are selling not just a certain type of book, but a certain type of life style. They combine coffee or furniture or even politics as an accompaniment to the books on the shelves, all to please the customer, to see what is popular one week to the next.

These books do not sit alone, they are languishing side by side with coffee cups, magazines, little nick nacks, toys, cd’s and anything else you could help sell books.

“It seems to fluctuate pretty intensely here,” said Will. “Last week there was a huge rush in poetry. It’s nice to know people are still reading.”

Smaller chains are even selling only one type of book, be it mystery, comedy, or erotic.

“If anyone says that Nancy Drew was not the coolest person ever in literature, you could give them my phone number and I will argue till I prove myself,” said Olga Ginzburg, a New York City art student leafing through the Victor Hugo Bookstore shelf trying to find some old paper backs that would conveniently fit in her jeans back pocket.

The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore is a Boston staple for the last 28 years. Getting settled in its new location, on 353 Newbury St, where previously it was forced out of its old home into a brand new downsized location. Boston Magazine’s best of Boston calls Victor Hugo “the black hole of Newbury St., because once you walk in, it’s almost impossible to extract yourself.”

“I love when you could carry a book on you, it is accessible and kinda erotic and personal,” said Ginzburg.

Ginzburg was looking for a good compact mystery edition to read while she languishes out in a local park, but some people just want that specific title and want to go home.

“One of the main indicators is when people come in looking for a book, we take it pretty seriously,” said Will a manager at Trident. “Nobody caters to the customers like we do. We really don’t make people feel like numbers. If people come looking for a book, we can get it, Period.”

Barnes and Noble are adamant about such issues as well. “This is one stop shopping,” said Claudia Sorsby, a sales associate at Barnes and Noble. “Smaller bookstores are great for specific niche things. For example the Mystery Bookstore, which couldn’t keep its breath in the business. Not everyone wants the same book.”

“American’s prefer one stop shopping, they go for supermarkets instead of grocery stores, that is why we survive” said Sorsby.

If people are reading, they read with more fervor than before, but the key to knowing what they are reading is difficult and fluctuates within age groups and cultural surroundings.

“The Pew Research Center’s latest news media habits survey has some familiar results about newspaper reading. Once again, fewer people are reading newspapers, and the declines in readership are greatest among young adults and the younger segment of the baby boom generation. But the same survey shows that young people are reading books and magazines at least as much as older Americans," said Andrew Kohut in an article from The Columbia Journalism Review, entitled “Young People are Reading... Everything, but Newspapers”

“So it is not that the young don’t read, it is that newspapers are not what they choose to read,” said Kohut.

With the encouraging prospect of people reading, there is still hope in the world of book selling. Sometimes the bigger stores, the evil ones that seem to be taking over the world manage to help each other out.

Beverly Potter from Rosemount, Pennsylvania, owns a local independent used bookstore specializing in first edition versions of classic books, called The Title Page. Right around the corner sits Borders threatening to take over her inventory and customer range. Maybe not.

“I was in there one time and the Borders manager was making love to the books,” said Claudia Sorsby, and employee of the Prudential Center Barnes and Noble. “He kept asking where did you get this and how can I get this copy?”

“Apparently anytime someone couldn’t find a book at Borders, the sales clerks would always tell them to go over to the little bookstore down the street and look for that selection there. The business boomed,” said Sorsby.

The market on used books is increasing day in and day out, and people are not limiting themselves to bookstores.

“The volume of used books online has sky rocketed,” said Sorsby. More bookstores, either sell everything second hand or keep a brand new stock. Trident and Barnes and Noble do not participate in the used book market, something that could benefit their future profits.

Amazon.com, Half.com, Powell.com, and Bookfind.com, and E-Bay are only a few of the thousands of sites catering to used books. The market is primarily in cyberspace and making a dramatic profit, taking away as much as Barnes and Nobles does from the independent bookstores. College students, book enthusiasts, or just avid readers are abandoning the endless search for out of print or hard to find books and using the internet to search for that print masterpiece.

One of the most frequently used web sites for books by college students is Half.com, or its big brother eBay. The company which boasted over 62 million users is a registered trademark in more than just online trading, it is well known for its great deals on different types of books. Such as textbooks or rarities.

Beyond Trident, Barnes and Noble and the Internet, some bookstores are closing down as fast as the leaves fall from the trees. It may be due to sales or just a disaster. The locations of all three bookstores in this story are in the same three-block vicinity. If one just happens to have an unfortunate disaster the stores adjacent to that particular shop will suffer as well.

The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury street had an unfortunate incident in the last few weeks. The Johnson’s Paint attached to Victor Hugo Bookshop had an unexpected fire which made swarming around the bookstore for information difficult, as well as uncomfortable. It seems that luck is not on the side of the little guy.

Overall, the book selling business in Boston is large. From large companies to smaller bookstores there is an advantage to them all. When looking for a certain book, it is the reader who decides where to go. Some search for their whole lives for a perfect edition.

“A Gentle Madness” by Nicholas A. Basbanes chronicles the true story of the history of book collectors all over the world. People that side stepped the big man, before there was even a big man to avoid. From the past to present, it chronicles the persons need for a good book.

The individuals described in “A Gentle Madness” are passionate about collecting books, just as small bookstores are passionate about the books they are selling to the passionate book reader who is buying. It is a chain that can be broken or extended.

Who knows what people really want out of book sellers in Boston? What is to be found is that people like to read. They may not like to read as much as they like to watch television or play video games, but without those people, Trident would be serving one less customer, and Amazon.com would be selling one last back issue of Vogue.

“Barnes and Noble are about trying to put everyone out of business, but they are a business and they are competition, which is expected,” said Will a manager at Trident. “We do our best to find what people want to read.”

Basically, if people want to read, they will search out a place to find that something to read, be it big or small, it all comes down to what the people want.
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