3 new bookstores planned for sites in 'city that reads' Barnes & Noble, Bibelot see opportunity where others failed

February 21, 1997|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Not long ago, big booksellers in downtown Baltimore seemed destined to go the way of Hutzler Bros., Hochschild Kohn and Stewart's, the department stores that once reigned over Howard Street. The "city that reads" lost two downtown Encore Books stores in a matter of weeks last June, and Gordon's Booksellers had long since packed up the last of its volumes.

Now, the business of selling books in the city seems poised for a dramatic rebound.

Even as Barnes & Noble unveiled plans yesterday for its vast music and book emporium to open in the Cordish Co.'s $25 million Power Plant project, Pikesville-based Bibelot confirmed its intention to open two city stores.

Brian Weese, owner of Bibelot, said his chain's first likely store near downtown, spanning about 16,000 square feet in a book and music mega-store with a Donna's restaurant, could open in the old American Can Co. plant in Canton by fall.

Weese said Bibelot is negotiating with American Can's owner, and plans to open a second store in the heart of the city's business district, perhaps at the former United Way headquarters on Light Street.

He said he was confident that Bibelot's blend of books, compact discs, poetry readings, live music and a full-service Donna's restaurant would succeed -- as have the Barnes & Noble and Borders book "superstores" -- where traditional bookstores have failed.

Weese said he has no doubt that downtown Baltimore could sustain three such stores and says he would draw customers more from neighborhoods and downtown workers than tourists.

"What's different about these stores -- and the real allure -- is the coffeehouse, the experience, the entertainment, and really all of these things will entice people," said Weese, whose chain opened its first store in Pikesville in 1995 and now has outlets in Bel Air and Timonium. "It's the whole shopping experience, not ++ just buying a book."

That thinking, in some ways, harks back to the "Beat Generation" coffeehouses, beckoning with poetry readings and espresso. But the 1990s incarnation is on a much bigger scale, with football-field-size stores drawing crowds day and night from downtown Manhattan to suburbs across America.

Barnes & Noble, too, said it welcomes competition -- and notes that it goes head to head, sometimes across the street, in big cities and in the suburbs, with other bookstores. In Bel Air, about half a mile separates Barnes & Noble and Bibelot.

"Having competition really forces you to focus on what your customers are looking for," said Jennifer Wolfertz, a spokeswoman for New York-based Barnes & Noble, the nation's biggest bookseller.

"If somebody comes in and says, 'You know Bibelot has a better selection of this type of book, you know we're going to listen to that and act on that."

Though it's a national chain, Barnes & Noble said it insists on a decidedly local flavor to each store.

In Baltimore, it plans to work closely with the Enoch Pratt Free Library system and FirstBook, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing books to poor children and offering tutoring, mentoring and family literacy programs.

On the first day of business for Barnes & Noble, expected to open in June 1998, the store plans to donate 10 percent of its overall sales to FirstBook and says it will devise other ways to promote literacy and reading.

Yesterday at the Power Plant, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke beamed as he stood by a 7-foot-tall maroon book inscribed, "The City That Reads." The larger-than-life book proved a fitting backdrop for the announcement of the impending arrival of a chain that has irrevocably changed the definition of big in the bookselling -- industry.

The bookselling giant has added superstores at the staggering rate of about 90 a year since it went public in 1993 and plans to expand at that pace through the turn of the century. The chain's rapid expansion reflects fundamental shifts in the industry.

Once largely the domain of independent stores in cities, bookselling followed the middle class to the suburbs with an explosion of mall stores, as chains snatched a steadily growing share of the market. After mall sales began slipping in the late 1980s, the big chains took their cue from some smaller ones and decided to target more than the traditional book buyer by offering much more than the traditional bookstore.

Over the past three years, some 250 independent bookstores have closed, many squeezed out by superstores opening in their areas, the American Booksellers Association says. Barnes & Noble and Borders, the largest chains, are in all 50 states.

Now even some smaller regional chains, such as Books-A-Million in the Southeast, are after the Barnes & Noble lead, opening mega-stores in the retailer's image, said Peter Reynolds, information services manager for the association.

"Multimedia seems to be what they're doing," Reynolds said. "Large, comfortable bookstores with couches and cafes inviting people to stay a while. In many cases, these stores are beautiful stores. They're a large curiosity factor. People want to see what's there."

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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