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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Turning a New Leaf

Schwartz’s legacy lives on

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The challenges facing brick-and-mortar bookstores represent the diminishing analog way of life. Hours idled away in bookshops are being supplanted by time spent browsing Amazon. The millions of downloadable books on Google yield a depressing vision of the future. Even mighty retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble feel the pinch of changing habits and an uncertain economy, and the future may be even bleaker for independent bookstores. Within the past year several major independent stores nationwide have closed their doors, but for Milwaukee the greatest eye-opener was the recent closure of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops.

It came at the end of a particularly trying time for Milwaukee's independent bookstores. In 2007 Peoples' Books was transformed into a co-op in order to keep running, and another specialty store, Broad Vocabulary, is following suit. The closure of Schwartz's Bay View branch last April was a sign of what lay ahead, and earlier this year the closure of the four remaining stores was announced.

Nevertheless, Milwaukee booksellers aren't ready to quit. Two Schwartz employees have taken over two of its former stores, with book buyer and manager Daniel Goldin transforming the Downer branch into Boswell Book Co. and Mequon's former manager Lanora Hurley turning that store into Next Chapter Bookshop. Both opened for business in early April, with grand openings planned for May.

Hope in Hard Times

Given the current economic climate, one hardly envies the new owners their enterprises. Nevertheless, both agree that they could never have envisioned opening their own stores had circumstances been different. "Because it's a recession it's possible to do this," says Hurley, recounting all of the factors that worked to her advantage: a lease deal brokered with her landlord, TARP money from her bank, the availability of a talented workforce willing to work for modest wages, not to mention the support offered by Schwartz's owner.

However, their ventures beg the question of whether a single-store model will succeed where a multiple-store model failed. Doesn't popular wisdom favor strength in numbers? Not necessarily, say Hurley and Goldin. Although having multiple stores held certain advantages, even with five stores Schwartz wasn't able to order nearly enough books to enjoy the discounts offered to big-box retailers. And supporting multiple locations, as well as a corporate office, became increasingly difficult to sustain.

For Hurley the inflexibility of Schwartz's infrastructure was a crippling challenge. "When times are good, that all works great, but when sales drop like they have for the past year, it's very difficult to make that shrink and still function," she says.

Even retail giants are suffering the drawbacks of an enormous footprint. Clearly, the future of bookstores lies in running a tighter ship and keeping overhead down. Goldin and Hurley have tailored their enterprises accordingly, reverting to more flexible and lean practices. Although both have retained a comparable number of employees in each store (about 13), they are putting them to greater use.

"We're all on the floor, we're filling shifts and I have booksellers buying books with me instead of a manager," Goldin says. "I think it's a win-win. Now I have booksellers filling in the professional positions and they feel more engaged than before."

Stability and Change

Considering Schwartz's eventual demise, change for the new stores was imminent, right? Wrong, Hurley says: "I don't think anything Schwartz was doing on a store level contributed to its downfall."

Although she has a number of ideas she'd like to implement, she's not in a hurry to give the entire enterprise an about-face. "Every customer I've talked to says, 'Don't change a thing.' They want stability… and I think now it's good to keep some stability going."

Goldin describes his approach as "historical precedent-with a tweak. Every time you come there might be something different."

He plans to stock more used books, traditionally far more profitable than new. More importantly, he plans to place them alongside new books.

"It might work, it might not. We're trying a lot of ideas," he says. "And that's the thing. With one store you have the ability to turn on a dime. When you have the layers of people, it's harder."

He also plans to encourage browsing. "The old mantra was 'finding,' and that's how stores were set up. What studies show is that that's the business that disappears," he explains. "The more people know what they want, the more likely they are to get it online."

He's planning on creating subsections in areas like fiction so people can find things similar to what they've read and liked, "sort of like 'tagging' in real life."

Both stores are committed to following Schwartz's precedent for author readings, which will offer an occasion for the two stores to pair up.

"We're a little nervous because we won't have the same pull as before, but we're saying to [publishers], 'If you can bring an author, they can read at both stores.' More bang for the buck," Hurley says.

Despite the uncertainty facing independent booksellers, both managers draw courage from the inimitability of the real-life bookshop experience, and believe their pared-down infrastructures will sustain them.

"I'm not as worried as naysayers are about the future of independent bookstores," Hurley says. "I actually think the independent bookstore is going to come out ahead when this recession is over. We're a little bit over-retailed in this country in general and the big-box stores are struggling as much as all retail. But unlike a small independent bookstore, they can't shrink as easily.

"I keep thinking Schwartz started during a depression and I think it's a good time to start a business if you can survive low sales," she adds. "It's sort of like a phoenix rising from the ashes."

For information on events at Boswell and Next Chapter, visit www.boswellbooks.com and www.nextchapterbookshop.com.


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