Unchained

Brian Weese is not exactly an open book. But the Bibelot owner's underdog success against national competition tells a story of moxie, creativity and vision.

September 14, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Picture a ladybug playing chicken with a Concorde jet.

No, that's not right.

Picture Kate Moss duking it out with a sumo wrestler.

Nope. Not right either.

Picture the little engine that could. The one that says, "I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can."

That's it.

Everybody knows that privately owned bookstores all over the country are being gobbled up by big bookstore chains. Everybody knows that the future of bookselling lies on the Internet. Everybody knows that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore has a future about as golden as a blacksmith shop. Brian Weese figures differently.

Right now he's likely standing in his store-to-be at the Village of Cross Keys, surrounded by boxes of books stacked to chest level. One by one, he is wrestling the boxes open, lifting out a book and, with a computerized wand, entering its title into the store's inventory. Throughout the store, employees are opening more boxes. Others are picking up books here, arranging them on shelves. By the time they are done, they'll have unpacked, counted and shelved nearly 150,000 books and 50,000 compact discs.

In two days, Weese will open Bibelot at Cross Keys, the fourth store in his growing bookstore chain and his fifth very public wager that conventional wisdom is at least partially wrong about how and where people will buy their books in the future.

In the past decade, publicly held megastore chains such as Borders Books and Music or Barnes & Noble and flourishing Internet businesses have delivered a one-two punch to privately owned bookstores. The market share for independent booksellers has fallen from 25 percent in 1995 to about 18 percent, and the effects of that drop are tangible.

At its peak in 1991, the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent book stores, had 5,100 members. After several years of sharp decline, its membership has leveled off at about 3,400 members.

But for the past four years, Weese has been going head to head with the national chains. His first bookstore, Bibelot at the Woodholme Shopping Center in Pikesville, opened in 1995. Since then, one store has become four, including venues in Timonium and Canton. There would be five stores, but a Bel Air Bibelot that opened in 1996 succumbed after two years to the competition -- a Barnes & Noble opened right across the street.

Weese appears undaunted. Not only is he set to open his newest store, but he also has plans to diversify by offering book-and-writing related goods such as greeting cards and toys. And he and a coalition of other independent booksellers are gearing up to sell books online. "The independent booksellers who have survived these last few years are very good business men and women," he says. "They've really had to respond to the customers. They've really had to work hard. And they are in a really good position to move ahead."

The Bibelot philosophy

At 7: 30 on a Tuesday evening, Bibelot at Woodholme hums with activity. The four-year-old store is 25,000 square feet and boasts an inventory of about 130,000 titles. Donna's -- the chic, locally owned coffee spot/restaurant that thus far has been a part of every Bibelot -- is packed with couples, singles, moms with kids. Shoppers dot the music department -- some are buying CDs; others, wearing headsets, are just listening. A young man sprawls in a comfortable chair near the travel books. In the back, about 40 people are listening to author Glenn Frenkel speak about his book, "Rivonia's Children," a story of South Africans who fought apartheid.

Zillions of books. Coffee. Music. Chairs in which to sit and read. Special events.

Sound familiar?

It should. The Bibelot philosophy is to combine the superstore tactics of endless selection, comfy chairs, cafes and jam-packed calendars with the benefits of the smaller independent bookstores. Weese says the concept works, though he declines to reveal sales figures. "When you are doing something great in a single location in a limited number of stores you feel the pulse of that community, and you don't have to cater to the lowest common denominator of people all over the country. You can concentrate on the needs of the customers right there," says Avin Mark Domnitz, executive director of the American Bookseller Association in Tarrytown, N.Y.

"Brian Weese is meeting the [publicly held chains] on their own ground and doing it very nicely."

Shoppers who enter Bibelot stores are greeted by tables of new fiction such as Elinor Lipman's "The Inn at Lake Devine" and Rosina Lippi's "Homestead." Nearby are displays of staff picks featuring books including "Against the Tide The Fate of The Cape Cod Fisherman" by Richard Adams Carey and "Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larson. What they don't find prominently displayed at the front door are the hottest best sellers, say, Thomas Harris' "Hannibal," or Danielle Steel's latest oeuvre.

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