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The Plot Thickens for Booksellers

Independents Like Vroman's Face Up to Challenges From Superstores, Changing Times

June 18, 1996|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The way of the world changes all the time in spite of reason."

--Agnes Stewart Warner, in her published diary of migrating west in 1853.

Joel Sheldon is trying, again, to connect to the Internet. A man cannot ignore the competition. But Sheldon, a computer pioneer in his own right, is having difficulties.

This time, a computer message greets him as he begins. Then, a smile wrinkles Sheldon's face. Having trouble? Click here, said the message. Order yourself a new how-to book.

"So I bought the damn book," he says delightedly.

Joel V. Sheldon III is the owner and president of Vroman's Bookstore, one of the largest and oldest independent bookstores in California.

That the Internet creates a new demand for books is not altogether surprising.

"I remember when they said television would do away with reading," he says from his tidy, modest office on the second floor of his Pasadena store. "Just go downstairs today and look at our television section."

So, wouldn't it be rich if we could leave the story here: Long live our great bookstores. Bring on the Internet.

Not so simple, however.

Tomorrow promises to be as eerie and uncertain as any time in modern history for these vital public spaces, our bookstores. Voracious competition and overbuilding by the big chain stores portend an ugly weeding out. And the information revolution has only begun revealing its unfathomable surprises.

For his part, Sheldon is betting on books and the survival ability of independent book purveyors. He just guided his 102-year-old store through a major expansion and remodeling. Vroman's won't yield like other independents without a fight.

Having said this, Sheldon's face tightens with worry.

Yesterday

Vroman's began in 1894. "And in the intervening years, we sat in the middle of one of the world's great population explosions," explains Sheldon. By 1954, when the store was moved to its present site on Colorado Boulevard, Vroman's could claim it was the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi.

Vroman's was more than retail books. It was a school textbook depository, an office furniture store. In 1968, it became the first bookstore to computerize its inventory.

Then came the age of specialization. Vroman's divested itself of ancillary businesses. The family-held stock was bought up and consolidated by those few who actually had their heart in retail books.

But there was no time to rest. Shopping malls were spreading everywhere in California. And malls attracted chain bookstores.

"Everybody was scared to death," recalls Sheldon. By everybody, he means everybody who was an independent bookseller.

Vroman's survived.

Only to see a new and perhaps more ominous challenge: the coming of the chain superstores.

Today

In the mid-1980s, Sheldon felt that inexplicable but all-American urge. If business is good, it is time to grow. Why? Because business is good; big is better. For two years, he planned a major expansion.

But those were boom times and real estate prices were too steep. The project foundered.

Then came the '90s, and two events occurred. Real estate prices plunged, and the new fad in Southern California became not the mall, but the urban entertainment center, like Pasadena's Old Town and Santa Monica's Promenade.

That was half good and half bad for Vroman's.

Suddenly, expansion was economically feasible. But even more suddenly, the chain superstores took advantage and began moving in. Vroman's core business was its large choice of books, something the mall stores could not match. But the superstore chains could--or could at least match the number of books for sale, if not always the satisfying selection. And they could offer discounts too.

Barnes & Noble moved into Pasadena. SuperCrown built three stores nearby. "Borders isn't here yet, but they want to come, we know that," says Sheldon.

Suddenly, bookselling was not so much about books and literary atmosphere. It was about market share, about a type of cutthroat and head-on competition the business had never before seen.

Sheldon revived his expansion plans. This time, his motive was survival.

"Expanding was the best shot we had. We knew that if we did nothing, we'd get run over."

Tomorrow

Sheldon produces a magazine clipping, which he slides across his desk to share. The May 27 issue of Publisher's Weekly reports that Barnes & Noble and Borders both lost money in 1995.

"I call it a scorched-earth policy. As long as they keep growing, everything is OK. . . . Nobody knows if they'll ever make money. But growth covers a lot of mistakes. This is no longer about bookselling--this is about market share and dominating markets. These guys are in competition to be the last one standing. It's a giant shootout. That's what has really changed."

According to Publisher's Weekly, the four major super chains brought in $4.2 billion in revenues in 1995, but lost a combined $217.5 million.

Sheldon grants "some truth" to the claim by the chain superstores that they have enlarged the market and appetite for books.

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