Monday, October 29, 2007

Texas Bookselling, All Hail the Mighty State?

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 10/29/2007

The only U.S. state that was once its own country, Texas is massive, with a land area of 261,797 sq.-miles, second only in size to Alaska. With some 23 million people and three of the 10 most populous cities in the country—Houston (fourth with two million people), San Antonio (seventh, with 1.25 million), and Dallas (ninth with 1.21 million)—Texas has long made significant contributions to the national bookselling scene.

In the 1980s, the state capitol of Austin gave birth to Gary Hoover's BookStop bookstore chain, one of the pioneers of heavy discounting. BookStop quickly expanded to 22 stores in four states before it was sold to Barnes & Noble for $41 million in 1989 (a handful of B&N storefronts in Texas still retain the BookStop name).

Today, the state is home to two burgeoning bookselling chains: Half Price Books and Hastings Entertainment. The first Half Price was opened in a converted laundromat in Dallas in 1972 by Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson, who stocked it with 2,000 titles from their personal libraries. The store expanded into a chain by selling remainders in a superstore environment. It remains family-owned and has since expanded to 14 states.

“We've signed leases on a total of 100 stores,” said Half Price executive v-p Kathy Doyle Thomas, with 38 of those stores located in Texas. “Texas is an attractive place to open bookstores because of the growing population and low cost of living, and consequently lower expenses,” she said. Rent in Texas is typically half of that in the Northeast or even the Midwest.

Hastings Entertainment, founded in 1968, offers a mix of books, music and video games in 153 locations. The chain is headquartered in Amarillo (in the Texas panhandle) and has 43 locations in Texas, most in small and medium-sized cities, such as Waxahachie, Sweetwater and Paris.

Matthew Gildea, Hastings's senior director of books, came to the company in 2006 after 13 years with Borders in Ann Arbor. He said Hastings's focus on smaller, often overlooked communities, proves there are indeed book buyers in rural areas. “It's telling what we sell—a mix of literary things and commercial things,” he said. Smaller markets, said Gildea, are “impossible to stereotype” because they are less influenced by book reviews and hype, opening opportunities to handsell. “When you bring an author to a small town, people aren't already jaded by having so many events, and you get a pretty good turn out.”

Of the three major bookselling chains, Books-A-Million has the least number of locations in Texas, with just nine stores. B&N operates 60 stores and Borders has 59.

The state's largest cities typically have just one or two independent stores fighting for market share against the chains. San Antonio for example, has The Twig Book Shop (and its children's offshoot, The Red Balloon). El Paso has the Cactus CafĂ© and Bookshop. Galveston boasts one fine independent—Midsummer Books.

The Brazos Bookstore in Houston nearly closed in 2006 and was only saved after a consortium of local book lovers banded together to save it. Manager Jane Moser reported steady sales and said that the store appears out of danger and sales are steady. “Everyday I get encouragement from people who still enjoy shopping at the bookstore,” she said.

Murder by the Book, which is just down the street from Brazos, has developed a strong following among Houstonians, particularly for its author events. Considered among the top two or three mystery specialty stores in the country, Murder by the Book was founded in 1980 and is having one of its best years, said assistant manager David Thompson. The staff is especially adept at converting older titles into bestsellers—this year, they've handsold 200 copies of Cara Black's 2000 novel Murder in the Marais and some 500 copies of Paul Levine's Solomon vs. Lord, published in 2005. Thompson has even started his own publishing company, Busted Flush Press, to do reprints.

In the Houston suburbs, Blue Willow Books and Katy Budget Books have managed to survive despite the competitive crunch. Stacy Morris, public relations officer for Katy Budget Books, said that at 8,000 sq.-ft., her store can compete with the chains and has the advantage of selling used books along with new titles, much like Half Price and Hastings.

Still, Alice Meloy, senior bookseller at Blue Willow, believes that ultimately Texans are not pre-disposed to shopping at independent stores. “It's the bigger is better mentality,” she said.

One place where that mentality has had a significant impact is in the Big D—Dallas. Twenty-five years ago there were 25 independent stores in Dallas. Today, there are none. In January, the last of Dallas's independent bookstores—Shakespeare, Beethoven and Black Images Book Bazaar—shuttered.

In all, the ABA lists 66 member stores in Texas—a deceptive number, since 38 of those are Half Price locations. The CBA is far stronger, with 142 locations; but the largest bookseller by far is Wal-Mart, which has 423 stores in Texas, nearly twice as many as any other state. Niche stores, such as the Marfa Book Company, which specializes in art and architecture titles and is open only four days a week, and BookWoman in Austin (a feminist bookstore) also hang on, though in fewer numbers than in the past.

Austin, the state capitol, continues to have the strongest literary reputation, much of it attributable to BookPeople Bookstore. The store, which was named PW's 2005 Bookseller of the Year, has become a destination store for authors visiting the state. Sales, driven in part by the local population of 40,000 college students from the University of Texas, continue to thrive. “We're having the best year in the history of the store and don't see any reason that our sales won't increase every year as they have for the past decade,” said owner Steve Bercu.

While some people may equate the big-box dominance with a sign of literary dullness, many believe the chains are doing a fine job in Texas. Among them is Valerie Walley, Random House retail field sales divisional director for the South. Walley, who moved to Austin from San Francisco in 2006, said that she's “been favorably impressed with both the national accounts and the independent stores,” but nevertheless still believes there's potential to be mined in Texas. “Texas is a microcosm of the country because it's so big,” said Walley. “There's a long literary heritage and people love to buy the printed word. That also means there's a lot less emphasis on buying books electronically, so bookstores can do well. With the fast-growing population, I would expect to see even more stores open in the future.”

Walley may well be right. In the past two years, a handful of new stores have popped up across the state, including The Bookworm in Frisco, Berkman Books in Fredericksburg, A Thirsty Mind in Lakeway and Intellectual Property—a Follett-branded store—in Austin.

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