Monday, February 25, 2008

New Orleans Booksellers Rebound

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 2/25/2008

Mardi Gras is a slow time for book sales,” admitted Tom Lowenburg, co-owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans, reflecting on a lackluster week earlier in February. “We saw a lot of our customers out on the street, but they're more interested in catching beads than buying books. So this year, we just closed up and gave our employees the day off.”

Ever since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the traditional Mardi Gras celebration has been downplayed, as organizers worried that parades and parties were in poor taste. But this year, festivities were back in full swing—and though the population of the city as a whole is down by a third from its pre-storm levels, having lost 150,000 of 450,000 people, and the bellwether restaurant business is down by an estimated 40%, bookselling has bounced back.

Donna Allen, for one, represents the new confidence post-Katrina. A former librarian and history teacher, Allen started working at the Maple Street Book Shop in 2006. Now she owns it, having bought it from Rhonda Faust last April.

“I feel people are more aware than ever of supporting local businesses especially in New Orleans, where it really matters,” said Allen. “Last year was our best year in the history of the store, and sales were up some 15% to 20%.”

Ted O'Brien, bookseller at the Garden District Book Shop, concurred. “Sales have been progressively better,” he said, adding, “It's nice to see the tourists come back... and not just the disaster tourists.”

In the years following Katrina, bookstores relied on sales to locals who were replenishing their libraries and got a big bump from the tremendous interest in Katrina-related tomes. “Now,” said Lowenburg of Octavia, “things seem to be back to normal.” He too reports that his store is experiencing year-on-year growth.

In all, Katrina led to the closing of three independent bookstores: Beaucoup Books and two locations of the Afro-American Book Stop; another, Kaboom Books, relocated to Houston.
DeVille Books in the Central Business District was completely flooded by Katrina, but reopened in December 2005. The store is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and is moving this month from a dark side street to a new storefront close to Canal Street, which borders the western edge of the French Quarter. The move will give the store greater access to tourist traffic.

“It's been an uphill battle since Katrina,” said Winter Randall, who took over as manager of the store in June 2006, “but we think the new location will be the missing piece and will help revive our name and reputation.”

The biggest vote of confidence in the New Orleans bookselling scene came when Borders announced it will open a new 24,000-sq-ft. store in the Garden District at the end of 2008, making it the first chain bookstore to open in the city center since BookStar closed a 12,000-square-foot store in the French Quarter in 2003. The new superstore will occupy the former Bultman Funeral Home on St. Charles Avenue, a historic landmark, having hosted funerals for Confederate president Jefferson Davis, actress Jayne Mansfield and Stan Rice, the husband of novelist Ann Rice, among others.

“I won't say we're not concerned,” said Lowenburg of Octavia, which along with the Garden District Book Shop and Maple Street Book Shop, will be close to the new Borders store. Instead of waiting to see what the impact on their sales might be, the indies already have a plan: under the auspices of the New Orleans Gulf South Book Sellers Association, they hope to launch a “buy local” awareness campaign once the chain opens.

“We're not going to try to smear Borders,” said DeVille's Randall. “Instead, we'll point out how great we indies are, and how much money we return back to the community, which is the most important thing of all.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Future Is Now for Borders

New concept store uses technology to enhance retail experience

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 2/18/2008

Online, it's called a “mash-up”—when two different genres of music or video are spliced together to form a distinct but familiar creation. Last week, Borders Group unveiled its new concept store—a 28,900-sq.-ft. bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich.—that convincingly bridges the online world and the real one.

Development of the new concept began immediately after George Jones replaced Greg Josefowicz as CEO in 2006. “When I started, I knew we needed to do something that would differentiate us from the competition,” said Jones during a recent tour of the Ann Arbor outlet. The store's proximity to the company's headquarters means it will serve as a kind of petri dish for new ideas, with close oversight from company executives.

Inside, the first thing customers are likely to notice is a 15-foot-high lighted tower encased in LCD screens, with the words “Go digital” prominently displayed. Dubbed “The Digital Center,” this 650-sq.-ft. store-within-a-store offers seven computer terminals at which customers can burn music CDs; download music, audiobooks and e-books (currently only into Sony Readers via Sony's e-connect Web site); and print photos. Self-service is an option, though specially trained staff will be on hand to help. While much of this is not entirely new—many retailers have been offering to burn custom CDs for some time—Borders intends to make the process accessible to older, non–tech-savvy customers.

What appears more radical is the way in which the company is bringing previously Web-only activities into the real world. Customers will be able to order personalized Our Name in History books for $39.95, via a partnership with; photo books through; and even self-publishing kits through These are being sold alongside Sony Readers, Sansa music players, headphones, digital cameras and even solar chargers. The section will be staffed not with booksellers but with “specialists” who will also help ensure the computers continue to run smoothly.

Computer kiosks are not limited to the Digital Center; they are sprinkled throughout the store, and all will be able to search Borders's soon-to-be-relaunched online store. The new is scheduled to go live this quarter.

LCD TVs are also prevalent throughout the new store, running loops of author interviews, concerts and featurettes, many of which are produced by Borders and filmed at its flagship store elsewhere in Ann Arbor.

A number of sections have been transformed into self-contained “Destinations”—stores-within-a-store—as well. “It's not 'category management,' ” said Jones, referring to the discarded merchandising philosophy instituted by Josefowicz, “but something better.”

Travel, cooking and wellness books have been grouped together in a large, airy “Lifestyle” section in the middle of the sales floor. These new “Destinations” each offer a computer kiosk and video screen showing Borders programming as well as many sidelines and related items.

For example, in the travel section, Lonely Planet videos play on the LCD, while the Web kiosk allows customers to customize a vacation, recommends suitable guide books and even allows buyers to book their travel, via a partnership with In the cooking area, customers can print out individual recipes to “test run” cookbooks and watch cooking segments featuring Food Network chefs and other personalities.

Additional highlights include a redesigned 1,800-sq.-ft. children's section that boasts a 90-foot mural by the Australian artist Colin Thompson and an expanded selection of graphic novels. A dedicated events area includes hardwired AV equipment and a stage that folds down on a “Murphy bed”–style hinge from the wall. The store also features the first retail implementation of Margaret Atwood's Long Pen, which enables virtual signings.

Approximately two-thirds of the store looks refreshed, with new curving fixtures and brighter signage, while the remaining third—mostly offering books in the standard fiction and nonfiction categories—is indistinguishable from a conventional Borders store. And while Jones said additional seats had been installed in the store, seating was still limited.

Jones said that the new concept should be rolled out across the chain over the next three years, with 14 new concept stores being built this year in cities around the country, from New Orleans to Las Vegas. The new stores will stock 170,000 book, CD and DVD titles, with only a slight shift toward additional nonbook items. Jones emphasized that the cost of building such a store was only “marginally higher” than current build-out costs. “While we remain at our core booksellers, we realized that what we really are to people is a headquarters for knowledge and entertainment,” he said. “We wanted to come up with a number of compelling reasons for customers to bypass our competition that also sells books and come to us. We think we've done just that.”