Monday, January 22, 2007

Wal-Mart Dominates Arkansas Bookselling Scene


By Edward Nawotka

From Publishers Weekly, January 22 issue

If you’re looking for proof that the apotheosis of big box retailers has had a detrimental effect on independent bookstores, look no further than the state of Arkansas. With just one bookstore for every 70,589 residents, Arkansas--the 33rd most populous state with a total of 2.8 million residents--has the fewest number of bookstores per person of any state in the country. There are less than 20 general independent bookstores, many of them small. One, Enterprise Books in DeWitt is a mere 250 sq. ft.

Wal-Mart, which is headquartered in Bentonville, has 92 outlets in Arkansas alone and dominates the retailing scene on its home turf. As a consequence, the chains have been careful not to overreach: Barnes & Noble and Borders have five outlets each, while Books-A-Million has just four. Hastings, has the most of all, with eleven locations.

Though Wal-Mart doesn’t offer an especially broad selection of titles--the average Wal-Mart stocks a few small sections of bestselling hardcovers along with a lengthy rack of mass market paperbacks--almost all its books are substantially discounted. The stores also carry Christian titles, a smattering of remainders, and in some markets, a dedicated African-American books section. The largest Wal-Marts, dubbed Supercenters, stock twice as many hardcovers and an expanded section of trade paperbacks.

John Robichaux, co-owner of Treasure House Books in Harrision, Ark. told PW, “Wal-Mart is a pervasive part of our society, a way of life. But they cut into the core of our business and take away a steady base of our income.”

Robichaux says his strategy for coping is to “stock what Wal-Mart does not,” such as Manga and focus on backlist titles and special orders. He says his 3,000 sq.-ft. store depends in part on tourist traffic driving through to Branson, Missouri, 40 miles north.

Arkansas’ best-known independent bookstore is That Bookstore in Blytheville, opened by Mary Gay Shipley in 1976. Shipley’s enormous energy is renowned throughout bookselling circles. Her store has managed to persevere despite a rural, out-of-the way location and thin local customer base in a large part due to her extensive author series, which gets a big boost by Arkansas native John Grisham, who routinely makes That Bookstore in Blytheville his first stop on any book tour.

When Madison Avenue advertising executive, Maryalice Hurst moved to Arkansas and wanted to open a bookstore, she found a mentor in Shipley. “Mary Gay is an island, a rock,” Hurst told PW. “In her community she’s an economic landmark and she’s certainly a landmark in bookselling. Without her I would have never opened the store.” Hurst's store, in Conway, Ark, is modeled on Shipley's to such an extent that she adopted the name: It is called That Bookstore at Mountebanq Place.

For her part, Hurst says that her business is barely surviving five-and-a-half years after opening on September 1, 2001. One of the obstacles she’s encountered is trying to convince wary locals that it’s okay to buy a book from a "Yankee." In a telling episode, fundamentalist Christian customers objected to having the Koran and the Talmud shelved alongside the Bible in the religion section. Hurst responded by moved the Islamic and Jewish texts to a new shelf Hurst labeled "Philosophy and Ethics.”

Many of the bookstores in Arkansas surveyed by PW seemed to be just hanging on. At Paper Chase Bookstore in Batesville, Ark, owner Mayfan Thomas admitted that “The last three or four years, there’s been a decline in business.” She added, “There are a lot of good readers here, though we only have 9,000 residents. I just hope it’s cyclical.”

In the state biggest city, the capitol of Little Rock, which has a population just shy of 900,000 in the metropolitan area, three independents persist. These are Tyler & Tyler Booksellers, a small store in North Little Rock that specializes in Southern topics, and a pair of started by Rod Lorenzen--WordsWorth Books & Co., which he opened in 1974 and ran until 1986 before selling, and Lorenzen & Co. Booksellers, founded in 1990.

WordsWorth remains Arkansas’ poshest independent. Co-manager David Cockroft describes WordsWorth’s clientele as “upscale and country-clubbish,” the very type of folks who can keep a carriage trade bookstore humming. In contrast, Lorenzen & Co. caters to the thrifty, stocking 90% used books and only 10% new books.

Novelist and short story writer Kevin Brockmeier, a native of Little Rock, lived for a time across the street from Lorenzen & Co. He tells PW he frequented the store so much he “was often mistaken as an employee.” While Brockmeier says he “loves” shopping at the independents, “The real action here is down at the Barnes & Noble. It’s where people will go to socialize.”

Despite the obvious challenges of relative poverty (Arkansas ranks 50th among the states in per capita personal income according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis) and preponderance of big box retailers, brave booksellers keep trying. Cottage Bookstore of Melbourne, a 750 sq.-ft. store opened in November 2005, and Nightbird Books opened in Fayetteville in March 2006.

Lorenzen, whose experience spans 32-years, sums up the state of Arkansas bookselling most succinctly: “We rank about last in everything good and first in everything bad,” he tells PW. “When I started, in the mid 70s, there may have been five or six bookstores in the state. Now, there are just a few more. This is not a state that has a population that can really support a lot of bookstores -- it never has been.”

States Literary Sons & Daughters:

John Grisham, Ellen Gilchrist, Donald Harrington, Bill Clinton