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The Plot Thickens for Booksellers

Next L.A.

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

June 18, 1996|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

But it is hard anymore to argue with his premise--that a fight to the death is what the chain marketers have in mind as they build rival stores in the same neighborhoods, sometimes virtually across the street from each other. Expansion draws capital in spite of earnings, but not forever.

"There is no question we will be over-stored," Sheldon says. "The only question is who will survive? . . . As for us, today we have the resources to put up a good fight. We have the resources, but we have to risk them now."

And Vroman's has had to risk something else--some of its character.

To keep up with the chains, the store has come to resemble a chain. Vroman's has begun to seek publisher payments for display space, just as the chains have. So now, the store has a financial incentive to display certain heavily promoted books prominently among the 100,000 in stock.

"We're starting to," says Sheldon about the hidden promotional gimmicks. His expression says he wishes he did not have to.

But another part of Vroman's character cannot be risked, says Sheldon. Any superstore today can claim 100,000 titles, all controlled by computer inventory.

If independents are to survive, it will be in selecting the best 100,000 from among more than a million books available, and in keeping them in stock when a book catches on--a knack that has earned Vroman's a loyal following. What is worse than hearing about a good book only to learn that it's "on order" because the person who recommended it bought the store's only copy?

"You have to have not just a large selection, but a good selection. That's how we think we can survive," says Sheldon. "And I've got, although it sounds presumptuous to say, more experience with computer inventory management than anybody in the business."

And Beyond

In some ways, today's teeth-gnashing about the bookstores may prove to be almost quaint compared to the larger changes, and challenges, to come.

Today, Southern California has bookstores aplenty, and vast selections of books, probably many-fold more than ever before. Bookstores have remade themselves into coffeehouses, into entertainment centers with author readings and book groups, and into meeting places--the 1990s version of the aerobics class, safe places to encounter interesting people. The chains and expansion of the independents have also given new energy to specialty stores in every field from religion to mysteries.

"In the short term, I guess you could say I'm pessimistically optimistic. And that's just how I felt 25 years ago," says Sheldon about bookstores.

"We've made the bet--I've made the bet personally--that there will be a strong book business for the rest of my business life, which I figure will be another 20 years.

"But if you think ahead 50 years, or 100 years, I can see a time when there won't be books anymore."

By that, Sheldon means books as we know them. He fingers a yellow legal pad and imagines it is a computer book of the future. You take it to bed and start reading. You can mark your place to the word, not just the page. You can push a button and refresh yourself about each character. Maybe you can scrawl in the margin with an electronic stylus. When you're done, you stick in a new book "chip."

Imagine the savings in bookshelves and paper.

"I can't think of all the possibilities," Sheldon says. "But I do know that things will change."

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