Harford's war of words Bookstores: A Bibelot and a Barnes & Noble compete in Bel Air practically next door to each other. The head-to-head rivalry is part of a national trend to grab suburban readers.

November 05, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

An apt title might be "The Book Wars of Bel Air."

When book superstores Barnes & Noble and Bibelot recently opened less than half a mile apart -- each with a coffee bar -- the town became a paradise for worshipers of the written word and lovers of latte.

"Isn't it beautiful?" asked Susan Craig of Edgewood, as she roamed the pristine aisles of Barnes & Noble clutching a stack of biographies. "There goes my paycheck."

Almost overnight, Bel Air, which had only the smallish Waldenbooks in Harford Mall and a Little Professor Book Center on Bel Air South Parkway, has opened a new chapter in its literary life.

The new stores, boasting a total of 50,000 square feet and 235,000 titles, are part of a national wave that's putting book superstores in head-to-head competition for the time and money of suburban readers. And nowhere in the Baltimore area are two giants so close to each other.

"They offer a very nice environment with many of them accompanied by coffee shops," said Scott R. Emerman, an analyst with Dean Witter Reynolds in New York. "And the American public has shown by their spending process that they are pleased with this approach."

But some wonder whether this literary candy store might not be too much of a good thing.

Kent Kocher, owner of the Little Professor, is confident he can offer more personalized service than his mammoth rivals. But he worries that he will not be able to compete with their trendy atmosphere -- including the Starbuck's coffee at Barnes & Noble or Donna's coffee bar at Bibelot.

"We've been joking around saying we are going to put a coffee pot on the counter," said Kocher, whose store has about 2,400 square feet, five employees and about 25,000 books.

The superstores, meanwhile, are concentrating on competing against each other.

"Hopefully there is enough business for everyone," said owner Brian Weese of Bibelot, a local chain with a store in Pikesville and one opening this month in Timonium. "Anywhere you go there is going to be competition, and I'd like to think that we will be able to handle it well."

Said Barnes & Noble manager Kelly Brandt: "There's a niche for everyone."

Nationally, the growth in book sales is coming mostly from large, national chains such as Barnes & Noble, Borders Books and Crown Books -- and especially the superstores.

According to an American Booksellers Association study, consumers bought 269.1 million books at such stores last year, compared with 200.7 million books at smaller independents. From 1994-1995, sales at the big stores increased by nearly 8 percent, while sales at independents fell by 8 percent.

Despite its somewhat sleepy reputation, Harford County -- a fast-growing locality of 204,000 residents -- is fertile territory for posh booksellers, said Elizabeth Carven, community development administrator for Bel Air.

She paints a rosy competitive picture, with each store drawing from a different part of the county, and the smaller stores flourishing despite the presence of the giants.

"I still think places like Walden's will do well because they will benefit from the mall traffic," Carven said. "There is room for everyone."

Both of the Bel Air superstores, meanwhile, have begun reaching out to the community in an attempt to attract residents.

At Barnes & Noble, overstuffed chairs and soothing music await potential customers. Book signings are planned by several local authors including Ed Okonowicz and Christopher Weeks. The store is available for community meetings.

At Bibelot, Weese has worked closely with county libraries to determine what residents are reading. The store has offered to ++ provide materials for school book fairs and recently held a book night in which a percentage of sales was donated to the library system.

"If you want to come in in the morning and drink your coffee and read your paper, that's fine with us," said Brandt. "We want to create an atmosphere that is comfortable to be in."

Weese, a former executive at Encore Books, takes a similar approach to browsers.

"We realize that not everyone that comes in the store is going to be a buyer that time," he said. "We welcome those people, too."

The two stores, which opened within a few days of each other late last month, have stimulated the interest of even the county's most casual readers. On a recent day, crowds lounged on Barnes & Noble's thick green carpeting and rummaged through Bibelot's modern wooden book shelves and fully stocked music department.

"I haven't decided yet which one I like the best," said Bel Air resident Carl Dumps, as he shopped at Bibelot. "I'm just glad they are both here because before you had to go all the way to Towson to find some things."

Kevin Tooma, 19, and Jeremy Fillers, 19, two friends from Joppatowne, seemed overwhelmed at the influx of new books to the county. "It's big," said Tooma as he and Fillers rested on benches in front of Barnes & Nobles' magazine section. "It's a nice change of pace from hanging out at the food places."

The presence of the two new superstores has local library bTC officials excited about the spotlight put on reading.

Irene Padilla, director of county libraries, said a scheduled book signing at Bibelot by children's author Paula Danziger, who wrote "Forever Amber Brown" and "The Cat Ate My Gymsuit," has the author's books flying off library shelves.

"We are all trying to do the same thing, which is generate interest in reading," she said. "I think it's really going to benefit the community."

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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