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Monday, Jan. 19, 2009

Schwartz Bookshops to Close After 82 Years

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Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, one of the largest and oldest independent chains in Wisconsin, survived the Great Depression but wasn't able to overcome titanic changes in the retail sector, exacerbated by the current economic crisis. Following years of disappointing sales and a brutal 2008, after eight decades in business the chain will close its remaining four locations on March 31.

"Business has been rough for a number of years now," said Schwartz President Carol Grossmeyer. "Then the market fell apart and it was such a dismal holiday season that we decided we really needed to end it in the first quarter of the year, that we weren't going to make it beyond that."

Shifts in the book industry have made survival difficult for independent booksellers, particularly chains like Schwartz, which require a higher overhead. The chain closed branches in Racine and Bay View over the last five years, as nationwide chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble have seized much of the brick-and-mortar market share and customers have drifted to online retailers like Amazon.com.

"These days a lot of the best sellers are even sold at places like Kmart and Costco, so it wasn't even the best sellers keeping us going anymore," Grossmeyer said. "It was really just the tenacity and passion of our employees, who were hand-selling books. Take a book like Linda Olsson's Astrid and Veronika. Thanks largely to Nancy Quinn, our marketing director, we sold 2,000 of that book, more than any independent bookstore in the country. That's the kind of thing a bookseller can do, push something we believe in."

Two Schwartz locations are likely to live on under new names. Mequon manager Lanora Hurley is in talks to acquire that branch and run it as Next Chapter Bookshop, while Schwartz General Manager Daniel Goldin is in the final stages of buying the Downer Avenue shop, which struggled to maintain its foot traffic amid recent construction on the street.

"I've been talking to banks and I have all the capital I need," said Goldin, who plans to rename the store Boswell Book Co. and keep Schwartz's iconic logo.

Goldin said he will maintain a relationship with Our Milwaukee, the buy-local campaign that Schwartz Bookshops co-founded, and will continue to host author readings and signings. On Monday morning, one day after Schwartz announced its closings, Goldin had already spoken with several book publishers, including Random House, about booking authors.

"I've got a pretty solid, conservative business plan," said Goldin, who has worked for Schwartz since 1986. "I understand that to run a store like this in these times, you have to be very flexible, so we're floating ideas that allow us to be community oriented and host a lot of events, while eliminating some of the extra expenses.

"I've been in this business a long time," Goldin added, "so let me just say that unlike a lot of new business owners, I know what I'm getting into."

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