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Mega Bookstores Flex Muscles

THE superstore is coming, the superstore is coming! And local bookstore owners are far from happy.

A number of superstores - giant chain-owned stores with up to 10 times the stock of a typical urban bookstore have already opened around the United States. Barnes & Noble Inc. has about 100 superstores. Waldenbooks has three.

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But what's new is that the major chains, particularly Barnes & Noble, the nation's largest mass-market chain, are now moving flat-out to open scores of new superstores and corner the market on books sales in the US. That possibility troubles many smaller booksellers.

"Bookstore chains are clearly targeting communities where independent, smaller, bookstores are most successful. And I have real concerns about such a development," says Meryl Layton, who owns the Cranford Book Store in central New Jersey, as well as four other small book stores in the region west of Manhattan.

Last month, Barnes & Noble, which is privately controlled, filed a plan with the US Securities and Exchange Commission to sell a third of the company's stock to the public in order to raise $130 million. The funds would be used to establish as many as 150 new superstores, in addition to the chain's existing superstores. Barnes & Noble also owns B. Dalton, a national bookstore chain.

Meantime, Barnes & Noble's main competitor, Waldenbooks, is also adding superstores. Basset Book Shop, a division of Waldenbooks, expects to have 50 superstores by 1993. "We find that when we come into a market, we expand book sales in general, which is beneficial to everyone," says Susan Arnold, a Waldenbooks spokesperson. Waldenbooks is owned by K Mart Corporation.

Bigness - or the presence of chain stores - should not alone be the undoing of small bookstores, says Bernard Rath, executive director of the American Booksellers Association. But, he says, he can understand why independent booksellers are concerned.

Mr. Rath notes that only about 2,500 of the 12,000 bookstores in the US are chain stores. Nor should the economic downturn by itself put smaller bookstores out of business, he says. Books sales continue to rise - up 16 percent over 1991 so far this year. Total sales for 1992 are expected to be somewhere between $8 billion and $9 billion.

THE challenge for smaller booksellers, says Rath, is profitability. A recent American Booksellers Association survey found that three-fourths of the 200 stores responding made a profit of only 0.5 percent of sales. Given labor, rental, utility, inventory, and other overhead costs, "there's just no margin of profit" for many booksellers, he says.

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Still, throughout the US, smaller booksellers continue to work long hours doing what they love best: introducing customers to a whole new world of ideas and adventure through books.

"I just give the very best service that I can," says Wallis Cooper, who owns "Reading, Writing & Wrapping," a bookstore in Scarsdale, N.Y.

But she is quick to note that running a successful bookstore has hidden costs; in her case no vacation in 19 years, in addition to "100-hour weeks."

Ms. Cooper is hardly reticent in her criticism of the blandness and "sameness" that she perceives in the mass-marketing concept of the superstores.

"There's an absolute need - particularly for people who love books - to have an independent bookstore where there are booksellers who know and love books," Cooper says.

Ms. Layton, whose five New Jersey bookstores are considered highly successful, has come to a similar conclusion. Long hours and familiarity with the product - including a love of books - are essential for survival, she says.

Layton began her first store at Cranford, N.J., in 1978. Today she also owns small bookstores in Westfield, Fanwood, Summit, and Bedminster, N.J., all suburban communities.

"Smaller, private bookstore owners need to distinguish themselves from the `monster' stores," Layton says. "We must provide good service, a friendly atmosphere, and know what customers want."

Maintaining careful inventory-controls is essential, she says. Thus, her stores will stock only about 20,000 titles, often with only one or two copies of a particular title. In addition to bestsellers and obvious favorites - mysteries or popular fiction - she looks for books that the large chains don't carry.

Layton says she will "jump through hoops" to get a requested book for a customer. She also looks for appropriate employees - a factor that she says distinguishes a well-run smaller bookstore from the chains, where the sales clerk may not always be a book reader.

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