Bay Books, seeing writing on wall,' to end 23-year run
Borders in bankruptcy; Waldorf store not on company's list of 200 closing
Friday, Feb. 18, 2011
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Staff photo by REID SILVERMAN
Longtime employee Tom Cary talks Wednesday with customer Annabelle Stark of California at Bay Books in the Wildewood shopping center. Cary has worked at the bookstore since September 1989.
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March 1 will mark the 23rd anniversary of the opening of Bay Books, the independent book store in California. It also will be one of the store's last days in business.
Store manager and co-owner Chuck O'Brien decided to wind down the business because he saw "the writing on the wall," he said, inscribed by the Internet, electronic books and a decline in reading for pleasure among the young.
Bay Books is not the only Southern Maryland bookstore in trouble.
On Wednesday, Borders Group filed for bankruptcy protection, about two months after the company stopped paying publishers for inventory and took other cost-saving measures, according to statements on the company website. However the Waldorf store may be safe for now; it is not included on a list of 200 stores included in Borders' bankruptcy petition that the company proposes to close.
O'Brien said three people expressed interest in buying Bay Books, but it was "no small investment," especially of time. Once he explained what running the store would entail, all three backed out despite his willingness to sell the business for only the value of its remaining inventory, he said.
The number of independent booksellers in the country has plummeted since he went into business, O'Brien said, citing figures from the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent sellers. The numbers could not be confirmed because they are not on the organization's website and spokeswoman Meg Smith did not respond to requests for comment.
At its peak, Bay Books had 26 employees. Now, nine people are working as the store winds down. It will close sometime in March, whenever it gets rid of most of its inventory. To help books on their way out the door at the end, O'Brien plans to trade books for canned goods and donate the food to the Southern Maryland Food Bank, he said.
"People say, Why are you closing?' Sales have gone down. I'm not selling as many books," O'Brien said.
Closing the store won't exactly be retirement for O'Brien, as he also works a full-time job as a civilian employee of Patuxent River Naval Air Station. The two jobs together require between 60 and 70 hours of work per week and he is looking forward to having some time to relax.
"You know what I'm going to do with my free time?" O'Brien asked.
"Exactly," he answered. He's been working so hard that he didn't have time to read the books he carried in his inventory. "I use the analogy I'm a man dying of thirst in a bar," he said.
The seed of the business was planted 30 years ago, when O'Brien met Tom Madison. They were both U.S. Navy lieutenants stationed at Pax River. When they returned to civilian life they decided to open a bookstore because "it's a noble profession," O'Brien said, and also because the educated people, engineers and other professionals, that the base attracted were likely customers.
A loan officer at the now-defunct 1st National Bank of St. Mary's didn't think they could do it. "You can't compete against Crown. Not enough people are going to buy books around here,'" O'Brien said the man told him and Madison, referring to Crown Books, which was at that time a nationwide chain of bookstores.
The bank lent O'Brien and Madison their seed money, though, because both men put their houses up as collateral. The store opened in 1988.
"One million, five hundred seventy-one thousand books later, going on 23 years in business, we proved them wrong," O'Brien exulted. It wasn't easy, though — for the first three years, the partners paid themselves $25 per week, plowing the rest of their profits back into the enterprise.
From the beginning, the pair had an advantage in the typically "old fogey business" of independent book selling, O'Brien said: In the military, they had both served as supply clerks, and they brought their inventory management skills with them when they left.
They were using CD-ROMs and the Internet for researching and ordering before some of their competitors had even heard of them and implemented a cost-saving, next-day delivery system.
Now, technology has caught up with Bay Books, and O'Brien said his customer base is shrinking even as St. Mary's County's population grows.
Children 10 and younger remain a valuable demographic, O'Brien said, but young adults have been falling away. Adults who are in the market for books in St. Mary's County are now generally middle-aged and older, and without younger spenders the business would stop being profitable in a few years if he kept it open, O'Brien said.
It's not primarily online book sellers or e-book readers that are killing the independent book stores, O'Brien asserted, but a growing preference for movies and computer games as entertainment.
"The shift has been, I got a home theater system to think about.' Book shelves became [filled with] DVDs," he said.
For a while, Bay Books expanded to two locations, the second one opening in Prince Frederick in 1993, but after a few years he shut the satellite store down. Also in 1993, Madison moved away, but he still shares ownership of the business. The California store expanded in 1996 and carried 35,000 titles, not too far behind the large chain stores, which O'Brien gently derided as "McBook" for their impersonal approach. Those stores might carry between 45,000 and 50,000 titles, he said.
"It's been a good run," O'Brien said.
Lexington Park resident Danielle Concordia would agree, having patronized the store for more than a decade. She plans to drop by the store at least once more to pick up books for her son and daughter.
"I'm going to miss being able to go to my local book store," Concordia said. "There's just something about going to a bookstore, touching the book and seeing the cover and pages. There's something about that rather than doing it online. I can't help it. I won't be able to read something online — I just can't do it. I don't want a Kindle."
Figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau show that overall revenue from sales of new books has been rising since 1992, the earliest figure available, from $8.3 billion to $16.7 billion in 2009. The numbers, which include sales figures from general, specialty and college bookstores, are not adjusted for inflation. However, the table does not indicate what proportion of the sales came from large book chains like Borders or Barnes & Noble versus independent stores. The figures came from the bureau's "Annual Revision of Monthly Retail and Food Services" report.
The day before Borders' bankruptcy announcement, spokeswoman Mary Davis said the company, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., had no further comment on its troubles and that "we're not speculating about our future course," including which, if any, stores are likely to close.
In the news release announcing the Chapter 11 filing, Borders Group President Mike Edwards blamed low customer spending, a lack of cash reserves and an inability to come to a delayed payment agreement with publishers.
Mary Lee Humphreys, who was browsing in the company's Waldorf location on Wednesday, said she hoped the store would survive.
"I love books. I think it's a nice store. I really like it. It has a good variety of books, and it's a pleasant experience," Humphreys said.
The lifelong Charles County resident said, "I'd have to find someplace else" to buy books if Borders closes or possibly turn to ordering them from the Internet.
Specialty bookstores in Southern Maryland may have a better chance of making a go of it than their generalist peers.
The owners of Fenwick Street Books and Music in Leonardtown and Second Looks Books in Prince Frederick both said that business is good and that bad economies can help stores like theirs because customers are looking to save money. Both deal mostly in used books.
The potential impact of digital books is overblown, said Joe Orlando, owner of Fenwick.
"Did instant coffee do away with coffee? I think there's going to be a place for both. Maybe 30 to 40 years down the road there will be people only reading on devices, but the death of the book is greatly exaggerated," he said.
Second Looks has also been doing well, said Richard Due, who started the store 20 years ago with his wife, Elizabeth Prouty.
The fate of stores like Bay Books and Borders generally don't affect the used book market, except that "every new bookstore is our supplier," Due said. But he wasn't as sanguine as Orlando about the future of the printed word, and forecasts that stores selling new books — and public libraries — will disappear within a decade.
"Being a used book store I could last longer. I don't know what I'll do. It will be an interesting time. … But if they're not printing paperback books anymore I'll have nothing to sell other than older books, but people aren't looking for older books but for very new books, only much cheaper," Due said.