Towson by the book Borders opens new chapter for booksellers

December 16, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Baltimore touts itself as the city that reads. But as far as books are concerned, Towson may be the city that buys them.

"It's like heaven down here," said Bruce Stevenson of Timonium last week as he browsed through the fiction section at the newly opened Borders Book Shop "superstore" in Towson Commons. "You've got all those bookstores at the mall [Towson Town Center] up the road, Encore Books around the corner and two Gordon's a very short drive away. If you're a book lover like I am, it's great."

He looked through the vast fiction and literature section before picking up "Memories of the Ford Administration," the newest novel by John Updike. He put it under his left arm; it would be a Christmas gift for a friend. Then it was upstairs to the non-fiction books. He was also going to try out the coffee and danish at Borders' trademark espresso bar.

"Books, more books," Mr. Stevenson said with a happy sigh as he waved his free arm expansively.

Indeed, it is "books, more books" in Towson these days. With the opening of the 150,000-title Borders store Dec. 8, the city's downtown area now has more than a half-dozen major bookstores within a few miles of each other. At Towson Town Center, up York Road from Borders, there are the chain bookstores B. Dalton, Brentano's and Waldenbooks -- the last two also owned by Borders' parent company, Kmart Corp.

To the east of Borders is Greetings & Readings, a large and popular independent bookstore. Encore Books, a chain discount retailer, is about a mile south on York Road. Gordon's Booksellers, a local chain, has two stores close by, one on Kenilworth Drive and the other, an outlet featuring publishers' overstocks, a few blocks away on York Road.

Even though Borders' grand opening is tomorrow -- County Executive Roger B. Hayden will officiate at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. -- the Towson store already has shown it can be a major player.

It's physically impressive: 25,000 square feet, far larger than most bookstores. Not only is the selection of books staggering, but more than 1,000 magazines will be on sale, store officials say. Sofas and reading chairs are placed throughout the store, and customers are encouraged to linger over a book or magazine in the espresso bar.

Amanda Patterson of Lutherville recently was looking through titles in the expansive children's section while her son, Billy, 5, sat at one of the tables. As Billy flipped through a book by a favorite author -- "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," by Eric Carle -- his mother noted, "He can occupy himself while I shop."

Steven Morvay, senior vice president for marketing at Walden Books Inc., said the Towson Borders originally was scheduled to open as a Basset Book Shop, the superstore chain Walden Books operates. But in October Kmart Corp. acquired the Borders chain --which had begun in 1973 as a single college bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich. -- and decided to have all its superstores carry the Borders name.

The Towson area was attractive, he said, because "it met our criteria, which are very stringent. We wanted to find a place with large [square] footage. Also, it met our criteria regarding the number of people that live in that area and, more important, the type of people who live in that area -- and that is heavy book buyers. You can imagine . . . that the residents are more educated than most, and that translates into more income."

All these bookstores may be heartening to readers, yet the opening of the Towson Borders raises the question: Can the area support so many bookstores?

"Having all the bookstores just shows that people in this area read," said Deborah Middlestadt, the community events programmer at the Towson Borders.

"Our research shows that stores usually expand the market but don't put people out of business," Mr. Morvay said. He adds that Kmart wouldn't be concerned if Borders were to take away business from the parent company's Waldenbooks and Brentano's stores in Towson Town Center. "If you're going to lose business, it should be to yourself rather than to the guy across the street."

Steven Baum, president of Greetings & Readings, acknowledged that competition already was keen before Borders opened its doors. "Was the market saturated? To say the least," he said. But he added: "Baltimore's a good, loyal town. Borders is a chain operation . . . Borders is nice -- don't get me wrong. But no matter how well it's run, you're still encountering the bureaucracy. We're a locally owned, family-owned business."

That's a sentiment shared by Melvin Gordon, president of the five-store Gordon's Booksellers. "There's room for more than one bookstore, and we've been locally grown and have been in business for well over 40 years," he said. "As far as changing anything, I just hope we can keep the same service we've offered in the past."

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