October 28, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

In the world of bookselling, they are either the queen B's or the killer B's. Borders. Barnes & Noble. And, most recently, the home-grown Bibelot.

To their customers, they are indeed superstores, with their deep inventory of books and music, regular appearances by authors and an inviting atmosphere for lingering, cappuccino-sipping and socializing.

But to their competitors, the smaller, independently owned stores that can't hope to match their sweep of inventory or clout in the marketplace, they are category killers, as threatening as a Home Depot is to a neighborhood hardware store or a Staples to a downtown stationery store.

Books R suddenly Us. While book superstores have been sweeping the country for most of the decade, the Baltimore area market began heating up only recently. The first Borders opened in Towson in December 1992, and had the superstore niche to itself until this year when Bibelot opened in Pikesville in April and another Borders opened in Columbia in May. And more may be on the way, if any of the current proposals and vague plans come to fruition -- a Borders in the long-vacant Power Plant downtown and more Bibelots. Everyone seems to expect Barnes & Noble, the nation's largest such chain with 308 stores, to open one closer to Baltimore, but currently there's only the one in Annapolis.

Nationally, an estimated 40 independent book shops closed in the past year in the face of a superstore -- or sometimes, more than one such store -- opening nearby. Here, it's a music store that has blinked first. An Die Musik, which five years ago became the first store in town with listening stations, is fleeing Towson next month to get away from Borders as well as mega-discounters like Best Buy and Circuit City.

"I'm driving a Volkswagen Beetle and trying to get myself on the same racetrack as the Lexuses," says Henry Wong, who plans to move An Die Musik to Charles Street downtown and add the now ubiquitous in-store cafe. A year ago, his other store, in Ellicott City, closed after just 1 1/2 years in business because of growing competition including Westview Mall's Planet Music, a music superstore. "I have to get away from the suburbs."

The area's independent bookstores are grimly holding their ground for now, trying to find ways to keep a share of the market and hoping that the titans will be so busy clashing with each other over the same suburban customers that they have a shot at everyone else.

"I think the way this will shake down is these superstores will create a wide spectrum across the board for independents to come in under them," says Jimmy Rouse, owner of Louie's Bookstore Cafe in downtown Baltimore. "People are going to be tired of going to malls, seeing the same choices, the same formats. It's going to become boring."

Louie's didn't start feeling the superstore pinch until this year -- the opening of Borders didn't hurt sales, but now, with Bibelot's entry in the market, his book sales are suffering.

Mr. Rouse's solution is to begin offering author readings and signings, something it had done in the earlier years of the 14-year-old bookstore/cafe. Louie's also plans to advertise and, wonder of wonders for a place with a famously indifferent staff, start putting more emphasis on customer service.

From a consumer standpoint, it is hard to complain about too many bookstores. Who isn't for more books, especially since the Baltimore area book market was fairly spotty before Borders arrived. The locally owned Gordon's Booksellers, for example, was already pulling back even before the superstores arrived -- former stores in Harborplace and Westview Mall are long gone, and the chain has just two remaining shops, at the Rotunda in Baltimore and Kenilworth in Towson.

Meaningful entertainment

"What's not to like about bookstores anyway, and now you get music as well and a place to eat," says Nanny Warren, organizer of tomorrow night's "Book Bash," a fund-raiser for Baltimore County Literacy Works that will be held at Bibelot.

Book Bash's instant popularity and continued growth parallels that of the superstores. It went from drawing about 450 persons its first year to 1,200 last year, attracted to the idea of meeting local and regional authors, musicians and media personalities in a festive bookstore setting.

"The '80s seemed a time when people talked about money all the time. Entertainment was the going to the mall, buying things. Now, it's the bookstore. People want to learn, they want to spend money on things that make sense, not necessarily fancy things," Ms. Warren says.

Borders had held Book Bash its first two years, but the store and the event seem to have outgrown each other. Borders says it was proud to help raise more than $85,000 in two years for Literacy Works, but now wants to spread its promotional dollars around a little more.

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