Smaller bookstores keep to their shelves Books: Literary emporiums are coming to the city, but small dealers are not worried. They are confident with their specialized niche.

February 25, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

At the Mystery Loves Company bookstore, don't expect to sink into an overstuffed sofa with a cafe au lait and a stack of books at your side.

Behind the narrow Formstone facade, down the single aisle of black floor-to-ceiling shelves, the Fells Point shop beckons with books and only books -- no bistro, no compact discs, no poets reciting or musicians performing.

In Baltimore, the "city that reads," the 5-year-old store is something of an anomaly. With its stock of nothing but mysteries, the shop never aspired to be all things to all people, finding its niche instead in the discriminating mystery reader.

But now the shop and the other few remaining independent city booksellers are bracing for the invasion of the superstores. Just last week, Barnes & Noble and Bibelot announced intentions to expand into the city with emporiums that have fast become popular hangouts of the late '90s.

First, Barnes & Noble, one of the nation's two largest bookselling chains with Borders, unveiled plans last week for a vast music and book emporium to open in the Cordish Co.'s $25 million Power Plant project. The next day, competitor Bibelot, the Pikesville upstart, said it is negotiating for two city sites.

Some small booksellers welcomed the news as a sign of renewed vibrancy for the city's shrinking book market.

Others talked of forging partnerships with the larger competitors, or said they'd already narrowed their focus in response to a trend that has Barnes & Noble and Borders battling for national dominance by opening just blocks from each other in city after city.

But all agreed that their survival hinges on their ability to fill gaps left by the superstores.

"To me, there's something lost in America right now with the advent of all these superstores and chains," said Jimmy Rouse, part owner of 16-year-old Louie's Bookstore Cafe on Charles Street, which mixes a bookstore with a restaurant. "You go to a mall and you see the same thing. We wanted to create something unique that you'd never find in the suburbs or another city. We've been successful because we've been able to do that."

But when Borders and Bibelot began competing against each other in Baltimore County, Rouse said Louie's business dipped 20 percent. Last year, anticipating the superstore trend eventually hitting the city as well, the bookstore began concentrating on the arts and philosophy as specialties.

Now, Louie's prides itself on responding to customer needs -- and hiring experts on the specialty areas on staff, said Angela Ogle, book manager and buyer. "This bookstore really pays attention to what the community wants, and we don't tailor it to what sells 15 copies," she said.

Adrian's Book Cafe opened in Fells Point three years ago in a former bar. Because co-owner Avril Haines doesn't aim at a mass audience, she said she stocks some of the smaller press books and local writers that big chains wouldn't necessarily carry. The shop's popularity -- and business -- has grown each year she said, especially after Haines expanded, moving the cafe to the second floor. On a recent late afternoon, customers sat at paisley-cloth covered tables surrounded by new books, sipping coffee, flipping through books and magazines while Cuban music softly played.

dTC "I'd be crazy not to be a little nervous, but I'm excited about having more bookstores in Baltimore," Haines said. "When I moved here, four or five years ago, I noticed there were not that many bookstores. In some ways, I'm hoping it's like New York, the more books you have in an area, the more people will go there to get books."

Elsewhere, the new sprawling book emporiums with cafes, compact discs and comfortable couches have sent small booksellers packing their volumes. Over the past three years, some 250 independent bookstores have closed, many squeezed out by superstores opening in their area, the American Booksellers Association says.

Before 1993, about 25 independent booksellers closed each year, said Peter Reynolds, an Association spokesman. Barnes & Noble and Borders, the largest chains, now operate stores in all 50 states, he said.

"They have the capital behind them and can open huge stores and put all these amenities in there," he said. "A lot of smaller stores can't compete with that. They can't afford to double in size and add a cafe."

They also can't compete with superstores' deep discounts on best sellers. So instead, they come up with creative ways to stay in business, he said. Some expand if they have the space, others offer special services such as deliveries through an Internet home page.

Or, they specialize in a genre or play host to the books' authors at signings. At Mystery Loves Company, you might find a first edition of Martha Grimes, but you probably won't find anything by John Grisham.

And that's just fine with J. Lawrence Freeman, a 49-year-old U.S. Postal Service worker and voracious reader of historical mysteries.

"Here's one you might like," co-owner Paige Rose said, handing Freeman "The Curse of the Pharaoh." "It has no cars."

Rose knows Freeman won't consider reading anything set in the post-automobile era, and such knowledge has kept him coming back.

"The people who work for the chains do not know about writers," said Rose, who runs the shop with partner Kathy Harig. "We are readers. That's important -- to read and know who's writing what and keep up with the industry."

Over the years, independent chains have thrived in the city, but they slowly shut branches or went out of business.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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