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Showing Some Spine 

Independent booksellers keep a wary eye on 'the 500-pound-gorilla' Borders opening on St. Charles Avenue.

click to enlarge For the front of its newest superstore on St. Charles Avenue, Borders preserved the façade of the former Bultman Funeral Home. The store's grand opening is Dec. 6. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • For the front of its newest superstore on St. Charles Avenue, Borders preserved the façade of the former Bultman Funeral Home. The store's grand opening is Dec. 6.

On Saturday, Dec. 6, the site of the former Bultman Funeral Home on the corner of St. Charles and Louisiana avenues will be formally introduced as the newest addition to the Borders chain of bookstores.

The implied irony isn't lost on Tom Lowenburg, owner of Octavia Books, located two miles farther Uptown. "(Last year) one of the funeral directors in town came up and grabbed my hand," he says, grinning before turning mock-grim: "'I'm so sorry, Tom.'"

Rather than hold a wake, Lowenburg chose to circle the wagons. Weeks before the Borders opening, on the evening of Nov. 12, he summoned a group of shopkeepers to Octavia for a potluck dinner and strategy session with what several attendees described as one central and collective focus: educating the public on the essential differences between a retail-minded bookstore and a community-minded bookseller.

It's a distinction New Orleans merchants are quick to define. Lowenburg opened Octavia Books with his wife Judith Lafitte in 2000. At 8 years old, their cozy neighborhood business is the self-described "baby" in a close-knit family of independent New Orleans booksellers, a resilient literary clan that includes Uptown hubs like the Garden District and Maple Street Book Shops (33 and 44 years old, respectively), the French Quarter siblings Beckham's and Librairie Bookshops (both 41), and the Seventh Ward institution Community Book Center — which, coincidentally, will celebrate 25 years on Dec. 6.

"Independents have the freedom to be more than just [a store]; they become meeting places," says Winter Randall, who manages deVille Books & Prints in the CBD and acts as executive director of the New Orleans Gulf South Booksellers Association (NOGSBA). "It's not what corporate says you have to have on the shelf. It's what you know your customers want, what you think would be beneficial to introduce to the reading community."

The booksellers say they are "cautiously optimistic" of a peaceful coexistence with Borders, stressing those aspects of their small shops that can't be duplicated by a large chain: personal attention, neighborhood participation, and a knowledgeable and caring curator. "I read two-thirds of the (ages) 9-12, young adult books," says Lafitte. "And I read all the 0-8 — every single one before it goes on my shelf."

"We all think that books are good," says Carey Beckham, proprietor of both Beckham's and Librairie Bookshops. "But I think the personal commitment factor is something that we bring to book life. Whereas corporate commitment is not always in the long term. It has to be connected to investor happiness.

"We're just investor unhappy sometimes," he laughs. "But we don't stop."

Britton Trice owns the Garden District Book Shop and serves on the NOGSBA board along with Randall and Lowenburg. Formed, fortuitous as it seems, in 1984, the association is a roving town hall of sorts for independent booksellers. Its purpose is to share information and promote local works, and its purview encompasses close to 50 authors, editors, publishers and librarians throughout the Gulf Coast region.

As well as, of course, a good many small business owners.

"In the last two years, there have been more independent bookstores opening up," Trice says. "But for a long time, with the growth of chains, independents in major metropolitan cities have really fallen."

In 2000 — the year Lowenburg opened Octavia Books — the number of other new independents registered by the American Booksellers Association could be counted on one hand. "The conventional wisdom was, you can't do it," he says.

Octavia's success, coupled with the generational tenures of so many area bookstores, is as much a measure of New Orleans residents' affection for the homegrown as it is an industry anomaly, according to Dana Eness, executive director of the Urban Conservancy and founder of its economic initiative, Stay Local!. Eness is concerned about Borders' effect on not just neighborhood bookstores but also their popular "feeder" businesses: independent cafés and eateries like Still Perkin' (located in the same shopping center as the Garden District Book Shop) and the Laurel Street Bakery (near Octavia Books). Inside every Borders superstore is a Seattle's Best Coffee shop, a subsidiary of Starbucks.

click to enlarge Husband-and-wife team Judith Lafitte and Tom Lowenburg opened Octavia Books in 2000. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

"It's the 500-pound-gorilla factor," Eness says. "Everybody agrees, the more competition the better, and there are all sorts of synergistic possibilities that the Borders and independent bookstores could feed to each other. But there's also the fact of being able to undercut prices, just because of the sheer volume that Borders brings."

Stay Local! is thus partnering with Lowenburg's coalition to advance its education efforts. On Nov. 22 — the day of Borders' scheduled soft opening — the initiative launched "New Orleans Unchained," an area extension of "America Unchained," the national campaign geared toward buying locally for the holiday season. Along with dozens of other businesses participating in creative symbioses, independent booksellers offered a percentage of profits to literacy programs. Many say they plan to repeat the incentive on Dec. 6.

"We looked at it two ways: We're going to work with Stay Local! and specifically promote us as independents," Randall says. "We did an impromptu poll [at Octavia Books], and just with the stores that were there and others I've spoken to since, we have a cumulative total of close to 300 years of bookselling in this city."

Eness echoes that strategy. "They're working proactively," she says. "They absolutely understand this is about their innovation, their resilience and their ability to respond collectively to this in a positive way."

Still, she sounds like a meteorologist when summarizing the meeting at Octavia: "You kind of look around the room and you're like, 'We all going to make this? Are we going to survive this one?' Because there's nothing you can do about that volume. They are battening down the hatches. They're bracing for it."

A similar economic storm was brewing in Austin, Texas, at the end of 2002. Anticipating the arrival of its own Borders store at the corner of Sixth Street and Lamar Boulevard, Civic Economics (CivEc), a strategic planning consultancy, presented a report to the local community group Liveable City and the Austin Independent Business Alliance.

Its findings were eye-opening. The potential detriment to nearby merchants, particularly BookPeople and Waterloo Records, was, as expected, substantial: Approximately 50 percent of revenue at a new Borders store would be diverted from Austin retailers in the vicinity. But of perhaps greater significance to the New Orleans market is the study's determination of local economic returns. Calculating the impact of $100 spent, CivEc found a $13 return at the chain — mainly by way of wages — versus $45 at the local merchants. (Borders eventually decided on a different site for its Austin store.)

Mary Davis, corporate affairs manager for Borders Group, Inc., declined to go into specifics about the company's site selection process. "We saw it as an opportunity to put a quality retail outlet at that intersection," she says. "We feel it sort of helps revitalize that area, and maybe helps pave the way to bring in additional quality businesses into the area."

On the surface, local merchants say, that reasoning may seem right. "But what are they investing?" Lowenburg asks. "If they're not re-circulating money, if it's taking money away from local bookstores that are reinvesting in the local economy, is that a good thing?

"If sales stay the same, but it's split more that way, the sales tax stays here but all the profit goes out," Trice says.

Eness, intrigued by the CivEc study, launched her own analysis. "According to the data that I have, [the Metairie Borders] employs about 40 people, (and) their annual sales revenue in 2007 was something like $5 million," she says.

Comparing those figures to aggregate totals from 14 small-scale booksellers, Eness found the latter amassed close to 80 percent of Borders' revenue (around $4.2 million) and roughly 90 percent of its employment (35 jobs, with none employing more than five people). But the linchpin, she argues, is that a dozen of those establishments are self-owned: "They're living here and reinvesting in New Orleans in a lot of other ways as well, rather than just being a wage laborer. What happens if we lose any of these businesses? What does that do to the fabric of the neighborhood?"

Merchants like Lowenburg, Trice and the Community Book Center's Vera Warren-Williams know firsthand. Octavia Books and the Garden District Book Shop were among the first businesses in their neighborhoods to come back after Hurricane Katrina. But in the flood-ravaged Seventh Ward, the impact of the Community Book Center supersedes financial reports. Warren-Williams' Bayou Road "gathering spot" reopened its doors 11 months ago after a two-year period of stagnation. She compares the subtle services provided by a community bookstore to a nuanced relationship: "It's just like a mate or partner — sometimes we take the little things for granted that they do."

Warren-Williams also recalls the economic impact when Bookstar, a Barnes & Noble subsidiary, arrived in the French Quarter. (It closed in 2003.) But, as she points out, the 25-year-old center survived that hit. It survived Katrina. And it will survive this, too.

"I can remember when Barnes & Noble was (first) opening up in Metairie," she says. "10 years later, we're still there."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
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