Balancing The Books

To compete with the superstores, independent bookstores have had to resort to unusual measures -- like borrowing money from their patrons.

July 22, 1999|By Georgia Alexakis | Georgia Alexakis,Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON -- Even in the quirky world of independent bookstores, Chapters Literary Bookstore has always been a novel establishment.

True to its name, the 13-year-old store cultivates a rarefied air, offering poetry readings and courting the Gore Vidals and Umberto Ecos of world literature, not pushing self-help books or pulpy best sellers.

So with Chapters being squeezed by corporate superstores -- part of a growing David vs. Goliath match-up pitting indie bookstores nationwide against biblio-behemoths such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com -- the store has taken another unusual approach: It's appealed directly to customers for help.

Chapters recently wrote to a select group of loyal patrons, asking them to advance the store $500 or $1,000. It would use the money, the store said, to improve its credit with wholesalers. Anyone who made such an interest-free loan would get a reward: credit, in the amount given, toward future book purchases.

It's self-interested philanthropy in the tradition of those PBS pledge drives, a plea to interested users for help with funding. Except for one detail: the business following this well-trod nonprofit path is a for-profit venture.

As it turns out, that's a sin many bibliophiles say they can forgive. Indeed, some say Chapters' decision to turn to its customers is testament to the allegiance inspired by independent bookstores. In an increasingly fragmented culture where bookselling is dominated by antiseptic superstore chains and Internet Web sites, many consumers seem eager to help preserve a cozy neighborhood bookstore with a personal touch.

"We are one of the last places where people can feel a sense of community," says Brian Weese, owner of Baltimore's Bibelot Books. "With something like a gas station, you figure the gas is just down the road, someplace else."

Indeed, Chapters is not merely a local store -- and certainly not another Borders. The small storefront on K Street is home to three or four author readings a week, free cookies and tea, and an expert staff. Indie aficionados say that stores such as Chapters value literary passion, not profits; they inspire and ennoble, not just entertain.

It makes sense then, at least one customer says, for a store that answers to a higher calling to ask the same of its customers.

"It is a romantic pursuit -- the pursuit of words," says David Dickerson, who has shopped at Chapters for 10 years. "It's hard to fall in love with Cheez Whiz."

Sending out an SOS

Terri Merz, a co-owner of Chapters, declined to comment on her store's financial circumstances or on the results of her appeal to customers.

But Chapters is hardly the first bookstore to capitalize on its customers' affection.

After 12 years in business, Patrice Wynne recently asked customers to help save GAIA, her spiritually oriented bookstore in Berkeley, Calif. Sales had declined sharply last year, something she attributes to Internet competition.

In December, she announced that she had no choice but to close the store. Within days, an anonymous Berkeley resident offered to match up to $200,000 donated by other patrons. Since then, Wynne has raised more than $130,000.

GAIA, which Berkeley has designated a cultural institution, now hopes to move next fall to much larger quarters across from the University of California's campus.

"We have kids coming and giving us the change from their pockets, and there have been at least three separate occasions when someone came in with a $5,000 check," Wynne says. "Our customers believe in people who live and work in their community. They believe in knowledgeable booksellers who are passionate about their work. That is what they are saying by giving a contribution to a for-profit organization."

It's the same message that Politics and Prose, another popular independent bookstore in Washington, got from the customers it approached for loans in 1990 when it needed money to relocate. Co-owners Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade turned to about 20 loyal patrons with hopes of raising about $150,000. The strategy had worked before: In 1985, loans from family and friends, all repaid with interest, helped Cohen open Politics and Prose in the first place.

"I think what Terri is doing is realistic; it is also her only alternative," Meade says, referring to the co-owner of Chapters. "There are enough romantics in the book-buying world that it's possible for her to get the help she needs."

Helping the underdog

Indeed, many of those who have responded to bookstores' appeals say they have been motivated by the plight of the underdogs.

According to the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for the privately owned stores, the market share for independent bookstores has fallen from 25 percent in 1994 to 16.6 percent last year. The group's membership, while now beginning to level off, dropped from 5,300 in 1994 to 3,400 in 1999, according to Oren Teicher, the association's chief operating officer.

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