Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Florida: Bookstores in the Sunshine State

By Edward Nawotka

From Publishers Weekly, 2/26/2007

In the literary world, Florida may be best known for having produced its own indigenous genre—the Wacky Florida Mystery. Purveyors, including Carl Hiaasen, Bob Morris and Tim Dorsey, are big sellers up and down the state. "Those authors—especially Hiaasen— easily draw hundreds to every reading," said Crystal Chancellor, district marketing manager for Borders Bookstores in south Florida. "But that's not all that sells," she added. "Florida is so diverse that you might have one store in which Jewish-interest and health books sell especially well, and another just a few miles down the road where the customers are primarily Spanish-speaking and interested in high-quality literature."

With 284 bookstores, Floridians have plenty of choice: the Sunshine State has the fourth-largest number of bookstores of any state in the country, behind only California, Texas and New York. Of the major bookselling chains, Borders has the greatest saturation, with 66 stores. The breadth of bookstores is as varied as the geography, which ranges from the beachy southern end of the peninsula and the hurricane-prone eastern seaboard to the Georgia border and the balmy panhandle.

Books & Books is Florida's best-known independent bookseller; it's celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Owner Mitchell Kaplan, a former president of the ABA, said that for many years he fought the stereotype that due to the weather, the residents of the Sunshine State wouldn't be interested in reading.

"Florida has traditionally been a place where there was a strong market for indies," he said. "When the superstores expanded into the state, there were initially a lot of closings. But smaller niche stores have begun to spring up." For his part, Kaplan has built a minichain with three locations: Coral Gables, Miami Beach and the upscale Bal Harbour mall.

"When we first opened, Miami was going through a rough period. But we've seen the city remake itself," said Kaplan, who pointed out that half of his sales are to bilingual Spanish/English readers.

Kaplan told PW that his idea of a successful bookstore was shaped by Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg on the Gulf coast. Founded in 1933 during the Depression, Haslam's remains the largest independent in the state. It offers 100,000 new titles, as well as several hundred thousand used books, in a 20,000-sq.-ft. setting. Co-owner Ray Hinst, the third generation of the family to run Haslam's (his son is a manager there), said that the "size of the store is the biggest statement we can make." It stays true to its "olde-timey" roots: no mailing list, no sidelines, and it's not open evenings.

In contrast, the Book Mark in Atlantic Beach in the northeast corner of the state is a mere 1,500 sq. ft. The store opened in 1990; Rona Brinlee purchased it in 1995. She said that her location serves three distinct types of clientele: locals, snowbirds who come for a few months and tourists. The combination, said Brinlee, means that her business isn't as susceptible to seasonality or weather. Brinlee is regularly interviewed by tastemaker NPR to recommend books.

Its Own Brand of Southern

Another misconception about Florida that needs correcting: "It's not really the South," says Leslie Reiner at Inkwood Books in Tampa. "Stereotypical Southern books like the Sweet Potato Queens don't work for us. Our customers pretty much read what the nation is reading."

Tom Rider, co-owner of Goerings Book Store in Gainesville in the panhandle, concurs. "We're not quite as empty-headed as we might seem," he said.

Located just a mile down the road from the U. of Florida, Goerings is both a 5,000-sq.-ft. trade bookstore and a separate textbook store. Rider said Gainesville has been experiencing significant growth in recent years, like many larger cities in the South. As a consequence, the chains saw an opportunity; two Books-a-Millions, a Borders and a Barnes & Noble are all nearby.

The boom in population also creates unique challenges: "Since we're still chopping down trees and plowing fields for suburban tract developments," explained Rider, "our customers continue to move further away from us. That means that a location you picked 10 years ago might not be as good, and you need to reassess constantly. Now that's a problem that we in Florida have that others around the country don't."

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