Brave booksellers

Running independent bookstores seen as heroic

Running independent bookstores seen as heroic

February 26, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

Taped to the wall of a back room of Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, W.Va., is a piece of tattered paper that reads, "There's something heroic about an independent bookstore."

By common definition, heroes possess courage, triumph over the odds and save the world. While the last attribute is a stretch, independent bookstore owners ? there are several in the Tri-State area ? do need bravery.

Those who overcome the odds and succeed can be in the minority.

"We're bucking the trend," said Michael Raubertas, who opened Four Seasons Books 15 years ago.

About a decade ago, the number of independent bookstores in the country dramatically declined, but those that managed to stay open are holding their own now, Raubertas said.


People who want to buy a certain book today have a plethora of options: They can go to an online retailer, visit a chain store such as Borders or Waldenbooks, check local big box retailers such as Wal-Mart or Target, or stop in at a locally owned independent bookstore.

Franklin County has a few independent bookstores, as well as Washington County and West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.

Jack Staley owns Barnwood Books on Potomac Street in Hagerstown, and helped family members open Southwood Books in Martinsburg, W.Va., 12 years ago and Northwood Books in Chambersburg, Pa., 18 years ago.

All of the stores only sell used books. Making money selling new books is difficult, Staley said. It's generally known that a new bookseller receives a 40 percent discount when buying a new book from a publishing house.

That means the store owner pays $12 for a book that retails for $20 ? the seller is making a profit, but not a substantial one.

Staley, 78, recounted two instances of people who tried to make a go of selling new books in Hagerstown. One failed after being resold and relocated. The owner of the other found his money quickly gone ? he was able to buy so few new books that he had them all facing forward to try to make the shelves look full, Staley said.

Of course, those who do open new bookstores help Staley, he said.

"When a new book is purchased, like a car, it becomes a used book, and when they finish reading it, they can either store it ? build a bookcase ? or take it to a used bookstore," Staley said.

While some people keep all of the books they buy, the tables of books less than 6 months old in Staley's store are proof that others read them once and then get rid of them.

"The new stores are our friends," Staley said. "Basically, that's what keeps us in business."

Staley avoids modern trappings. He does not offer online sales or have a computer in his Hagerstown store. Purchases are rung up on an old adding machine.

He has owned the store for 22 years and credits his success to practical policies such as organizing books neatly on shelves.

No books are on the floor, and books are not stacked two deep on shelves. They are organized by genre ? Staley offers fiction and nonfiction hardbacks and paperbacks ? and within genres are arranged by author.

"A friendly landlord" also is a must because rent is a business' single largest controllable expense, he said.

Although the building that houses Staley's business was sold this month by Vincent Groh to Demcore Development, Staley said he anticipates his rental agreement will not change.

Passion required

Living in Frederick County and commuting to Washington, where he worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Raubertas found himself spending his lunch breaks in bookstores.

That was about 20 years ago, when he decided he wanted to spend his life doing something he loved, not simply holding down a job.

He and his wife spent three years scouring possible locations after he decided he wanted to give up his secure federal government job and open a bookstore.

Eventually, they decided that Shepherdstown seemed as if it could use a bookstore since, at the time, the only bookstore within 30 miles specialized in children's books. A few stores have opened since then, including a Waldenbooks in Martinsburg Mall, which opened the same year Raubertas opened his store.

Raubertas opened in 1991 on German Street, the town's main thoroughfare.

"Since the very beginning, we knew we're a small store, so we're not going to have hundreds of thousands of books, but we try to have the best books," said Raubertas, 50.

His store sells new and used books, including adult fiction and nonfiction and children's books, as well as books of local interest. He also sells remainder books ? new books that a publisher overstocked and does not want to keep ? at a greatly reduced rate.

Special orders can be placed for any book that is not in stock.

Raubertas said that online retailers have hurt his business.

"But on the other hand, I think Amazon is not as good a deal as people think it is," he said, because postage must be paid.

Amazon charges postage for orders of less than $25; otherwise, shipping is free.

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