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Big and Little Booksellers Succeed

Demographics, technological advances, and innovative services allow bookstores to press on

THE stereotype of the ``troubled'' independent bookstore needs some quick revision, says Bernard Rath, executive director of the American Booksellers Association (ABA). Mr. Rath points to the success of privately owned bookstores in such diverse communities around the United States as Denver, Minneapolis, and Cambridge, Mass. Cambridge's Harvard Square area alone, he reckons, has ``at least 14 independent bookstores,'' most of which, he says, are doing quite well (see story, Page 13).

But the larger point, Rath insists, is that despite the proliferation of national chains in recent years, smaller, privately owned independent stores are not only hanging in there against the big boys on the block but are thriving, in many cases.

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``Back in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, there was an enormous fear that the smaller nonchain bookstore would disappear,'' Rath says. ``But that has just not been the case.''

Owners of struggling bookstores might take issue with Rath's view. Many small stores are fighting against what they see as the rising clout of the chains by offering personal services such as special ordering, knowing customers by name, stocking specialty books, and using other gimmicks to attract customers including sales of non-book items like videos, cassettes, food, and coffee.

Large national stores continue to thrive and expand. ``We've recently added another small chain to our roster, the Bookstop group in the south and southwestern US,'' says Sharon Jonas, public relations manager for B. Dalton.

B. Dalton is privately owned, essentially controlled, she says, by investor-businessman Leonard Riggio, who also controls Barnes & Noble, Scribner's Book Store, and several other distribution firms. B. Dalton alone has 800 retail outlets. ``Mr. Riggio started off as the owner of a small bookstore, so he considers himself an `independent owner,''' says Ms. Jonas.

``We'll open about 50 new stores during 1990,'' says Dara Tyson, a spokesperson for Walden Books, with 1,500 stores around the US.

Mr. Rath, of the ABA, estimates that there are around 10,000 ``true'' bookstores in the US (not variety or magazine stores that sell books.) Of these, about 2,400 are national chain stores; another 500 or so are regional or local chains. But some 7,000 outlets, Rath says, are independently owned book stores.

About 40 percent of all books are sold through the main chain stores, according to ABA data; the rest are sold by the independents.

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Economic circumstances vary widely within the $14 billion retail industry, Rath says. Thus, he says, some independents could have a harder time than others. But the main point, Rath insists, is that many book stores are doing well and the financial road ahead looks promising.

RATH sees a combination of factors aiding both national and independent bookstores:

The changing demographics of the US, with the massive postwar ``baby-boom generation'' coming to maturity: Folks in their 30s and 40s tend to buy a lot of books.

The increasing volume of books pouring out of private and university presses. Some 50,000 new books are issued annually in the US. Out of such diversity, he says, it is hard for a bookstore dealer not to sell some books.

Computer-linked technologies (such as cash-register/-inventory hookups) now allow almost the entire transaction process to be substantially expedited. A cash-register/computer can records sales and automatically reorder new copies, sometimes by a direct link to the wholesaler or distributor.

While many popular new books are expensive, roughly 85 percent of all book sales represent ``backlist'' books.

Bestsellers continue to pour off the presses, in many cases serving as loss-leaders for the larger chains, as well as the national book clubs (see chart below). Soaring author-royalty-publication costs of bestsellers pose major problems for book publishers.

Rath's trade group is not standing still against the backdrop of a slowing economy. The ABA is currently pumping $500,000 into advertising by helping to underwrite humorist Garrison Keillor's new radio program on Minnesota Public Radio.

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