End of a chapter Vanishing bookstores: Two downtown outlets go out of business in 'city that reads.'

July 03, 1996

BALTIMORE HAS never been a great book town. That's why the arrival of Encore was a big deal and why the abrupt closing of its two downtown discount stores is such a disappointment. Only two book stores now remain downtown: B. Dalton's in the Gallery at Harborplace and Louie's (mainly a cafe) near Walters Art Gallery.

These closings come at a time when Borders in Towson and Bibelot in Pikesville have finally given the metropolitan area first-class bookstores. While they stock a huge selection of reading material, they also offer CDs of every variety and have cafes on the premises. The two Encore branches downtown were small by comparison and did not venture beyond books.

Developer David Cordish, who is planning a $30 million refurbishing of the Inner Harbor's padlocked Power Plant, hopes to have an oversized bookstore and a big record store in his mix of entertainment venues. He thinks the harbor attracts enough visitors to make such stores profitable.

Most books are not high-profit items. The margins of heavy discounters like Encore are often razor-thin but its stores thrive in high foot-traffic areas. Unfortunately, both of its downtown locations were problematic.

One of the closed Encore stores was a block away from the harbor. But even one block proved to be too far and the store failed to attract enough shoppers to justify the high rent. The other Encore was at a small shopping complex at Charles and Saratoga streets, where the lunch hour was its only busy time. (That store location is so tough that even a McDonald's failed there recently.)

Can a book store succeed in Baltimore City?

Of course. But it would have to be in a location which would have heavy traffic throughout the day and evening hours. One such location might be somewhere near the 3100 block St. Paul Street, which draws lots of students from the nearby Johns Hopkins University. Indeed, it is puzzling that the area has not had a book store in recent years.

The formulas of Borders and Bibelot suggest that they succeed because of good venues, superior selection of books -- and because they justify a trip from greater distances. There is every reason to believe that format would find patrons in Baltimore City as well.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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