Thursday, September 13, 2007

Oklahoma Bookstores


by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 9/10/2007

Oklahoma, formed as a state from Indian Territory on November 16, 1907, celebrates its centennial anniversary this year. The intervening 10 decades have taken the state from the dust bowl privation depicted in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath to a present-day state of prosperity.

In 2007, the 3.5 million Oklahomans enjoy a booming economy, largely funded by oil and gas, which has given them the third fastest-growing per capita income anywhere in the U.S. The annual per capita income of $32,210 per person may be well below the American average (Oklahoma ranks just 37th among the states), but the cost of living is also proportionally low. This means that while the state ranked 47th among states in per-student expenditures in 2006, it still took first place for early childhood and pre-kindergarten education. Oklahoma also had the highest percentage of high school graduates among the Southern states—suggesting the state should be rife with readers.

That said, Oklahoma is hardly saturated with bookstores. Among the national chain booksellers, Borders is most pervasive, with eight Waldenbooks locations and two superstores in the state. Barnes & Noble has five stores, while Books-a-Million has just one.

Gianna LaMorte, sales rep for Random House, said that among the chains in Oklahoma, Hastings has the most potential to grow. With 12 locations, many of them in out-of-the-way locales, “they have become destination stores for many shoppers,” said LaMorte. She added, “The long driving distances in Oklahoma mean that audio books are especially popular, both at Hastings and independent stores, like Full Circle in Oklahoma City.”

Full Circle Bookstore became familiar to many in the publishing community in the weeks immediately following September 11, 2001, when booksellers there found themselves recommending books to cope with the trauma of a terrorist attack, knowledge they acquired helping locals deal with the aftermath of Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995.

At 7,500 square feet, it is the largest independent store in the state and the best known. Owner Jim Talbert says that the last five years of economic boom in Oklahoma City have helped stabilize bookselling in the area, with few stores opening or closing. “The biggest impact on our business in recent years,” said Talbert, “was when Barnes & Noble and Borders opened up in nearby Norman,” the state's third-largest city and home to the University of Oklahoma. “That drained away business that would drive in to buy books from us.”

To help differentiate his product mix, Talbert started publishing local-interest titles under the Full Circle Books imprint. One title, OKC: The Second Time Around by Steve Lackmeyer and Jack Money, a narrative and photographic history of Oklahoma City, has sold more than 2,000 copies.

In the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, Julie Hovis, owner of Best of Books Inc., said the real competition is online. “People who don't have a bookstore near them don't want to have to get into a car to get what they want,” said Hovis.

Elsewhere in Oklahoma, independent bookstores are spread thinly—from the Bookseller in Ardmore, down near the Texas border, to Brace Books & More in Ponca City up next to Kansas. In Tulsa, Oklahoma's second-largest city, Steve's Sundry Books & Magazines is the lone independent booksellers alongside two Barnes & Noble stores, two Borders outlets and a Waldenbooks.

Penguin children's book sales rep Jill Bailey makes just three stops in the state on her sales rounds. “There are so many smart book people in the state,” she said. “In some towns you get the sense that they're just not brave enough to try. They should: the book buyers are out there.”

Overall, the American Booksellers Association counts just eight member stores, while the Christian Booksellers Association has some two dozen members—no surprise in a state where nearly a third of the population identify themselves as members of the Southern Baptist Alliance.

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