E-sellers turn the page to retail

Online operation opens bookstore in Columbia

Small business

April 14, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Dan and Jan Riker are trying to combine the best of both worlds with their new store.

The owners of online Bassetbooks.com are stocking their new bricks-and-mortar bookstore with the same kinds of unique finds in mysteries, tales of espionage and European history as they have online.

But they have also taken a page from large commercial retailers in designing their store with wide aisles, good lighting and a quiet corner for visitors to enjoy a cup of coffee or play chess.

The tech-turned-traditional business owners say they are trying to change the stereotypical image of the used-book seller - that of a dimly lit storefront filled with dusty books overflowing onto the floor.

"We thought there was a real opportunity to provide the classy, classic used-book store with openness and ambiance chain stores specialize in and for having state-of-the-art computers and Net capability," Dan Riker said. "The kind of store we're trying to run has high-quality [items] and a large selection."

The Rikers could have chosen a better time: The new store, on Oakland Mills Road just off Snowden River Parkway in Columbia, opened in February days before the state's worst snowstorm in more than 130 years and in the midst of a sluggish economy.

But it joins about 50 other used-book stores within 75 miles of Washington, according to the Washington Antiquarian Booksellers Association (WABA). There are five others in Howard County alone.

According to WABA President Elisenda Sola-Hopper, the Internet has driven an increase of interest in used books and opened the door for new sellers.

"The Internet [brought] used-book buying ... out of the closet. Now people are used to buying used books on Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com," she said.

"Unlike new-book store [chains], each used-book store has its own personality. While one might have a focus on military and history, another might have a focus on mysteries and science fiction. Because the stores are small, they tend to take on a personality."

Basset Books offers out-of-print books, collectibles and rare finds, and features well-stocked sections on Russian history and literature, mystery and crime, espionage and intelligence, modern literature, classics, nature, gardening, children's books and antique books on a variety of topics from the occult and travel narratives to English cooking and nursery rhymes.

The owners are careful to stock some first-edition prints, Limited Editions Club books, as well as signed copies of books - rare and not-so-rare - some of which cost up to $900.

But Basset Books does not simply cater to the hoity-toity collector, Jan Riker said. Plenty of $2 paperbacks are available.

"We try to provide books people aren't going to see at Borders or Barnes & Noble," she said. "It's not just a place for wealthy collectors, but it's also a place for kids to come and discover how wonderful books are and how accessible they are."

The store marks a big step for the Columbia couple, who started the business in 1998, when they found their reading hobby could do more for them than overrun their bookshelves.

Their online bookstore has an inventory that has grown to more than 9,500 titles, and the new store will more than double that, offering more than 15,000 books, with an additional 5,000 titles in storage. Dan Riker said that about 60 percent of the inventory will overlap, but some items will still be available only online, and others only in the store.

The online operation expanded at a rate of between 25 percent and 30 percent annually, Dan Riker said, enough to support a retail location that would be a natural extension for his thriving e-business.

The new location will help better serve those customers who appreciate books as objects, Jan Riker said.

"One can enjoy a book on a lot of different levels," she said. "The book will never go out of style."

Slowly, patrons have come to discover the store. Marc Thomas of Reisterstown said he collects books and has been shopping the online store for a couple of years, and was glad to find its retail outlet.

"You never know what you're going to notice that you didn't even know existed, and that's easier to do in a bookstore," he said.

"The ability to go there and talk to the bookseller who's knowledgeable about the collection is a real plus. As he gets to know me, he'll be able to say, `That's something Marc Thomas would be interested in,' and he'll scoop it up for me."

Ten people in the store constitutes a crowd now, but the Rikers are optimistic that the store will draw more customers. Jan Riker said they are working with WABA to bring speakers to the store and to hold book signings to help build up business.

They're also aiming to expand revenue to $250,000 by the end of this year, and to be prepared to expand when their lease is up in 2 1/2 years.

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