Buy the Book

Black bookstores may be the way of the dinosaur. Here's what retailers must do to survive and thrive.

and sell book inventory.

The retail book business has changed a lot over the years. Once dominated by small mom-and-pop stores, 60% of all titles were sold by independent sellers 20 years ago. In 1991, “indies” sold over 33% of book titles, while major chains moved just over 22%. By 1997, independent stores sold only 17% of books while major chains moved over 25%. Besides competing with the chains, independent sellers have also lost customers to wholesale warehouse stores, online retailers and book clubs in recent years.

Chain megastores, however, are the independents’ most immediate and threatening competition as these large retailers have focused on growing their customer base by luring niche-market readers. “The chains want a larger piece of the $296 million that blacks are spending on books every year,” says Faye Childs, creator of the Blackboard, a monthly list of best-selling, black-authored titles. Ironically, Childs created Blackboard eight years ago because there was a prevailing notion among publishers and mainstream booksellers that blacks did not buy books.

Chains like Barnes & Noble bring their formidable size and finances to bear offering substantial discounts on best-selling titles; multiple locations; roomy stores replete with couches, reading areas and cafes; and even catalogues that highlight black-authored titles. These attractive customer perks often prove too costly for most independent stores to duplicate, resulting in a decline in sales and profits.

That certainly was the case with Clara Villarosa’s Hue-Man Experience Bookstore in Denver. Five years ago, a Barnes & Noble moved into her area. “I’ve probably had about a 15% drop in sales, and it’s creeping upward,” says the black store owner. “The superstores can discount at greater rates because African American writers don’t account for a huge amount of their sales,” explains Villarosa, who notes that chain stores offer as much as a 20% discount to lure customers.

While it may be impossible to offer the same low prices as chain stores, black bookstores, like other niche-market retailers, have the advantage of an already defined market. Servicing that market well is key to developing loyal customers and garnering support from publishers and authors.

James Fugate, owner of Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, says author signings can be very valuable to establishing and maintaining sales. “When we moved, it really helped us to have signings. One of our concerns was that we’d have a loss of business, but we didn’t,” says Fugate. in the first few weeks of Eso Won’s move in 1996, the store hosted signings for such high-profile authors as Patti LaBelle, Tina McElroy Ansa and Johnnie Cochran.

“One major thing independent stores seem to have over chains is that people come in and ask the staff ‘what should I read?'” says Random House’s Barron, who says that chain stores usually don’t have as great a selection or as much knowledge of black-authored titles as independents. “Barnes & Noble may sell a good number of my books, but I’ve noticed that independent stores make more

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