Cover to Cover owner calls it quits New chapter: Bookstore owner Marsha Berman, suffering from competition and burnout, has sold the business to concentrate on her home-based publishing company.

January 16, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Suffering from burnout and fierce competition from the major chains, the owner of Cover to Cover Bookstore in East Columbia has sold the specialty bookstore. Marsha Berman says that after 17 years, she is ready to begin a new chapter in her life.

"I am very happy because I'm ready to move on," Mrs. Berman said, explaining that she will focus on her new home-based publishing company, Perry Publishing. "I just feel like it's time."

She said that every time a chain bookstore, such as Borders or Crown, opened in Columbia, sales at her bookstore in the Owen Brown Village Center plummeted. "It was always a struggle," Mrs. Berman said. "Being in a village center is not an easy place for a retailer."

Mrs. Berman's business woes mirror what is happening to small booksellers across the nation, according to the American Booksell ers Association (ABA), a not-for-profit group representing 4,500 booksellers.

The ABA says publishers give larger chains promotions and discount allowances that make it almost impossible for smaller businesses to compete. The group has filed lawsuits against several publishers.

Since 1993, an estimated 100 independent bookstores have closed, said ABA spokesman Len Vlahos. "What has to be done is that the playing field has to be leveled," he said.

Mrs. Berman and a former partner whom she bought out after one year spent about $40,000 to open the bookstore, one of the original stores in the village center, in October 1978. The former math teacher at Oakland Mills High School wanted to pursue her love of books.

At that time, there was one other Columbia bookstore, Page One, at The Mall in Columbia, she recalled.

But the mall store soon sold out to a chain, and other bookstores followed at the mall, Snowden Square and Dobbin Center. The chains, Mrs. Berman said, were just too tempting to shoppers.

She tried changing her strategy. In May 1988, she opened a cafe in an attempt to draw customers for more than a quick browse through the stacks.

Last year, she expanded the cafe and scaled back the bookstore into more of a specialty shop with self-help, new age and personal-growth books.

The final blow came when a huge Borders bookstore opened last year. "I said, 'I can't take it anymore,' " Mrs. Berman said.

In July -- two months after Borders opened -- she sold the cafe to a group of four known as Bannd Limited Liability Co.

Then Mrs. Berman, 53, decided to find a buyer for the bookstore. On Jan. 5, she sold the store for an undisclosed amount to Marian Brown, a 30-year hospital administrator from Woodlawn.

"I think I pretty much ran out of energy and got burned out after a while," Mrs. Berman said. "I think Cover to Cover has been a real asset to Columbia and didn't want to close it."

Now, the cafe and bookstore are separate entities existing under one roof.

Ms. Brown, who officially takes over the bookstore Feb. 1, will sublease space from the cafe's four owners.

Although her predecessor had difficulty, Ms. Brown said she is undaunted. "My plan is to do very aggressive marketing and [public relations] kinds of activi- ty," she said.

She said she looks forward to spotlighting local poets, artists and musicians, and co-sponsoring activities with the cafe owners.

"She's got some new blood, new enthusiasm and new life to bring into this arena," said Alexis Grant, one of the cafe owners.

"We work in unison with the bookstore," Ms. Grant said. "Its success depends upon us, and our success depends upon it. United we stand, divided we fall."

The cafe, which serves espresso and cappuccino, has become a mellow place for entertainment, art and fine dining, she said. "It's a place people can come to and feel like they walked into a friend's house."

News of Cover to Cover's sale surprised some customers.

"I didn't realize it was being sold," said Chris Rogers, who sat in the cafe recently to have lunch with his wife, Cyndi. Before eating, they searched the bookstore's shelves for a book on relationships.

Mr. Rogers, who lives in Columbia's Oakland Mills village, said: "It's kind of a shame that the big box stores seem to come in an area like this."

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