Bibelot book chain to close

Area stores to lay off about 100, shut doors within three months

March 11, 2001|By Lorraine Mirabella and Laura Vozzella | Lorraine Mirabella and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Bibelot, the homegrown bookstore chain that became a neighborhood hangout and forum for local authors, is shutting its doors nearly six years after it emerged on a retail scene dominated by bigger national stores.

The Baltimore area's largest independent book and music seller filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Friday in Baltimore. It plans to close its four stores and lay off an estimated 100 employees within three months.

"It's a real loss for the independent book-selling world," said Avin Mark Domnitz, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association in Tarrytown, N.Y. "They were really kind of a beacon that the world of independents was not synonymous with small, that independents come in all sizes and all specialties."

Bibelot, known for showcasing Maryland authors and luring shoppers with entertainment, comfortable lounges and Donna's restaurants, had expanded even as dominant chains Barnes & Noble and Borders Group Inc. forced hundreds of independent chains out of business.

But Bibelot, which opened its first book and music store in April 1995 in the Woodholme Shopping Center in Pikesville, has struggled financially recently. In May, Bibelot defaulted on a $17 million loan from Bank of America. After defaulting, Bibelot worked unsuccessfully with the bank for several months to find a buyer, said Bibelot's attorney, Joel I. Sher of Shapiro, Sher & Guinot.

The company, which filed under the corporate name Bloomsbury Group, has assets of $10 million to $15 million and debts of $15 million to $18 million, Sher said.

Bibelot had become one of the nation's most prominent independent booksellers, ranking in the top 25 in size, Domnitz said.

"It was an extraordinary organization with great leadership, and I'm taken aback right now," he said.

Brian D. Weese, co-owner with his wife, Elizabeth, would not comment on the closing, which he announced to employees late Friday. But Sher blamed industry trends and poor sales at Bibelot's two city locations.

"Right now, Crown Books is going out of business. The bigger ones have had slumping sales. So it's an industrywide problem," he said. "I also think the stores in the suburbs did fabulously -- Pikesville and Timonium. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the stores in Canton and Cross Keys."

Bibelot had filled a niche in the area by promoting readings of national and local authors.

"It's shocking that Bibelot is closing and frightening to think how hard it is for independent booksellers," said Elizabeth Spires, a Baltimore author and resident who has written eight books. "Bibelot has been a wonderful bookstore to Baltimore and Maryland authors. They've taken a real interest in both having a wonderful stock of books, but also knowing and encouraging the authors who live in Maryland.

"I really don't think it's enough for a city to have national chains," she said.

Donna's, which leases space in all four Bibelots, hopes to keep its restaurants open and is negotiating with the landlords to stay, said Alan Hirsch, business manager and co-owner with Donna Crivello. If another compatible business takes the lease, Hirsch said Donna's would consider trying to combine the two uses.

"It's very sad," Hirsch said of the Bibelot closings. "They were great stores, and there was a great community feel. There was a great synergy between Bibelot and Donna's. I'm sorry to see it didn't work. It was a big part of our growth."

The Internet and book superstore rivals with deep pockets have made times tough for independent booksellers. But Domnitz warned against reading too much into Bibelot's demise.

"Symbolically, certainly it's not good, but I don't think you can make conclusions about the whole [industry]," he said. "Independents from all over the country, the ones who have survived the onslaught of the chains and the superstores, in many places are doing well."

Bibelot closed its Bel Air store, which performed poorly, in 1998, but continued to expand. The company opened stores in the restored American Can Co. in Canton and another in Cross Keys, also in the city, and had planned further expansion, including an addition at the Mall in Columbia.

Bibelot's Canton store was bustling early yesterday afternoon, with customers leafing through books and lounging over coffee and pastries. But customers formed a line only at one cash register -- the one in the cafe.

A sales clerk who declined to give her name said the store succeeded as a hangout but had more trouble persuading people to pay for books and magazines they read for free in the store.

"That's great," she said of the crowds, "but you also have to buy."

Sun researcher Sheila Jackson contributed to this article.

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