The news that Walter Carr was selling Elliott Bay Book Co. came as no surprise to me. The reasons he was selling were drearily familiar.


Books Quarterly: Why We Sold Our Bookstore

It's not so easy carrying out a labor of love when your industry is out to kill you.

The news that Walter Carr was selling Elliott Bay Book Co. came as no surprise to me. The reasons he was selling were drearily familiar. Only a few months before, I had gone through the same agonizing exercise—selling my bookstore and effectively giving up on my dreams. In 1989, when my wife and I were deciding whether we should leave our cushy corporate jobs to pursue our dream of buying a bookstore, I called the owners of two of my favorite bookstores for advice. Chuck Robinson, who with his wife, Dee, owns the prosperous and popular Village Books in my hometown, Bellingham, said, "You know you're not going to make much money." Next I called the owner of Pacific Bookstore, a store I patronized near my home in Santa Monica, California. "You know you're not going to make much money," he said. In hindsight, I don't know what they could have said to make us change our minds. We had a Lewinskyian infatuation with books, so we went out and bought the only available bookstore we could find at the time: Snow Goose Books, in Stanwood, a rapidly growing community on the edge of the Seattle growth envelope. And our Cassandras were right—we didn't make much money. But we did OK. By investing heavily in inventory, merchandising, and marketing, working seven days a week for years, and being fortunate enough to be located in a rapidly growing community with no physical bookstore competition, we did quite well by bookstore standards. We realized double-digit sales increases every year we owned the store, we were able to support ourselves, and after a few years we were even able to take a few days off once or twice a year. In other words, we applied proper business principles to the operation of our business, and were properly rewarded. But running the store was never easy, and it became more difficult as time went on. The book business, as it turns out, is not run like a proper business. At about the time we took over operation of our store, Barnes & Noble opened its first superstore. The '80s, which in some ways had been a golden age for independent bookstores, were giving way to the '90s, in which the corporate chain stores copied the most successful independent stores by opening large attractive stores with huge inventories. With seemingly limitless investor money, the chain store operators could afford to plop one or more of their new superstores next to a thriving independent and sustain losses almost indefinitely—or at least until the independent bled to death, which it invariably did. While four different bookstore chains were pursuing this expansion strategy—killing off one of them (Crown Books) in the process—independent stores fretted over a number of issues. Not only were we worried about having superstores open across the street from us; we were also worried about our suppliers—both publishers and book wholesalers—overextending themselves by extending too much credit to the chains, then cracking down on us when one of the chain stores went under. Which brings me back to our store. As I said before: Although we never made much money, we did pretty well. But even though we worked harder and harder, our profits never increased in relation to the effort we expended. In fact, they hardly ever increased at all—so we were expending more effort just to keep our heads above water. And we could have kept on doing that had it not been for the credit crunch we were hit with after the Crown bankruptcy. This is how it went: Ingram Book Co. is by far the no. 1 book distributor in the country. (Many readers may know that Barnes & Noble has made a deal to acquire Ingram. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating the transaction.) More than half of the books we bought every month were purchased from Ingram, and because the distributor could guarantee next-day delivery on nearly 100,000 titles, it made it possible for us to compete with the chains by virtually eliminating the disadvantage we had in the form of our small in-store inventory. For the first seven years we owned our store, Ingram routinely doubled our credit line during the holiday season. This was important for two reasons: First, we routinely did about 45 percent of our sales in the fourth quarter of the year, which meant we were ordering a lot more books during that period than we were in the other nine months of the year. Second, Ingram had a very good calendar sales program, which it promoted heavily, so in addition to books we also ordered thousands of dollars in calendars—items that we didn't carry the other nine months of the year. Our Ingram bill swelled in the fourth quarter, but it was never a problem until after the Crown bankruptcy. That was when I received a call from the Ingram credit department—in November—telling me that our store was over our credit limit. I said something like, "Our credit line is automatically doubled at this time of year, isn't it?" and was told that policy had been discontinued. I was incredulous. It was widely reported in the book trade press at the time that Crown had stuck Ingram with a huge receivable, somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million. And now our little store, along with thousands of stores like it, was paying the price—a price that made it all but impossible for us to stay in business. From 1996 to 1998, I was president of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, an association of mostly independent booksellers and sales reps. Our association's bookstore membership peaked at 365 in 1993, and now stands at 287 stores. Stores go out of business for a variety of reasons, but it's safe to say that increased competition and a more difficult business environment are big factors. Giving up a bookstore is not easy. Chuck Robinson said once that bookselling is a "way of life, like farming." Deciding to sell our store was an excruciating decision for my wife and me. Selling Elliott Bay Books was no doubt an excruciating decision for Walter Carr. But when faced with longer and longer hours, more difficult terms from suppliers, and increased (and, more to the point, unfair) competition, it gets harder and harder to get up every morning to milk the cows, no matter how much you love the way of life. Patrick Moody now is recuperating at home while dreading a return to corporate America.

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