Thursday, June 11, 2009

If You Thought Schwartz Closing was a Fluke or Bad Management, You Should Probably Read This--Ann Arbor's Shaman Drum and Appleton's Conkeys to Close

Years ago, David Schwartz and I were discussing the demise of the beloved Ruminator (best known for most years as Hungry Mind) Bookstore and we agreed that most if not all indie bookstores were just two bad decisions away from closing. (The Twin Cities book world did not totally suffer; Mr. Unowsky the owner resurfaced at Magers and Quinn, a great used/new hybrid in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, while his cohorts Misters Bielenberg and Weyandt took over St. Paul's Micawbers. Hey, look, a blog from them!

The margins are two (I meant "too", it's not a reference to the "2% solution, as suggested by my friend Linda) thin to be otherwise. So it's not surprising that the changes to the book business (online shopping, internet options for data gathering and entertainment alternatives) and the general downtown in the economy have taken their toll.

My friend and comember of the Independent Booksellers Consortium Karl Pohrt's Shaman Drum, an elegant chateau of brain candy in Ann Arbor, is closing at the end of June. Read about it in the Ann Arbor News. It's been Pohrt's hope to transition to a nonprofit, but a direct route from here to there did not prove to be successful. From what I know from my friend Scott, an Ann Arbor librarian, Shaman Drum continued to be beloved by many academics and book lovers at the University of Michigan, but the decline of their textbook business, due to open listing laws, proved too difficult to overcome. I am very sad about this development and wish the best to Karl Pohrt and all his crew.

Yes, the government does secret and no-bid contracts all the time, and universities have huge fees and costs out of students' control, student loan companies have terribly harsh penalties that are almost created to force students into default, but you are not really allowed to control where students buy their textbooks, by only giving the course list to one store. Understand that this is my total self-interest involved here, but we're talking about one zillionth of the cost of a college education--why is this the only cog in the wheel where suddenly everyone becomes self-righteous about price? Is there any merit to having a bookstore near a university (or a couple) that subsists on textbooks sales to contribute to the intellectual and artistic vitality of the neighborhood.

On a similar note, Conkey's Bookstore of Appleton is also closing, mostly due to losing their bid contract with Fox Valley Technical College to Barnes and Noble. Read about it here in the Appleton Post Crescent. Recently I appeared on Kathleen Dunn's show with owner John Zimmerman, where he thought the loss of the contract would lead to reduced hours and layoffs, but a continuation of the business. This is not to be the case. Another sad development. (The picture is of me with my Conkey's ruler--"When you think of books, you think of Conkey's.")

I guess Of course the whole thing scares me. Not all, certainly, but enough of our business at Boswell comes from these kind of sources that if more than one dried up at the same time, we'd be in serious trouble. We understand that for these bulk orders, we've got to be more competitive pricewise, but if there's a lot of servicing involved as well, it's hard to imagine there's a win involved either way when the margin starts being eroded. Perhaps this lack of efficiency is what led Zimmerman to underbid. Or perhaps Fox Valley didn't really make allowances in their bidding process for local versus national businesses. Yeeks.

Two bad decisions. And I have no idea what they even were. I make at least two bad decisions before I eat breakfast (generally oatmeal, with craisins, dried bananas, and slivered almonds) but I'm lucky enough that I have avoided making decisions with bad implications (delay on signage, delay on web site, all fixable. Location, we'll see.)

But our main take-away today for Boswell:
Pursue alternate sales, but don't let one source dominate your revenues. I saw this happen on an early Will and Grace episode where Harlan fired Will after Will dropped his other clients to focus on Harlan. The episode did not end well, but unlike reality, the show continued for a bunch more seasons. Live by the sword, die by the sword, I guess.

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