Grass Roots Gold Rush

Three hundred miles is a long way to go to buy books, but Meg Ross doesn't mind the drive from Baton Rouge, La., to Oxford, Miss. That's because she knows she can find what she wants at Oxford's Square Books, a roomy, two-story shop that in only 11 years has earned a regional reputation among book lovers. On a recent trip, Ross bought Fernand Braudel's "The Structures of Everyday Life" and I. F. Stone's "The Hidden History of the Korean War," titles she couldn't find in the chain bookstores back home. Wandering the store's wide aisles smelling the fresh-brewed coffee from the store's cafe, Ross praises the hospitable feel of the place. "I enjoy hanging around with the books," she says, "not just rushing in to buy one thing and leaving."

Square Books owner Richard Howorth cheerfully gives his chief competitor, Waldenbooks, most of the credit for what Ross likes about his store. He opened a shop in Oxford simply because William Faulkner's hometown didn't have one (when Faulkner lived there his books were sold at the drugstore). Howorth did great business for four years, until Walden came to town in 1983. That year Howorth saw his growth curve go flat. The competition "made me start thinking bigger," he says. In 1987 "we doubled our space and inventory and more than doubled sales." Howorth not only endured, he flourished. "Last year we were up 30 percent over the year before."

Gibbs Smith launched a publishing company in 1969 but to this day the Layton, Utah, publisher has never had a best seller. No matter. His $3 million company, Gibbs Smith, Publisher, puts out about 30 books a year--ranging from "Greene & Greene," a two-volume study of early-20th-century California architects, to environmental guru David grower's autobiography--and is growing at an annual rate of 5 to 10 percent. At first Smith had to chase after manuscripts 'but no more. Now submissions come in at a rate of up to 50 a week. "At first I wondered if we should move to New York," Smith says. "I'm glad I didn't. Now I feel we can realize the dream from the West."

Never better: Success stories like these would not be news but for one important fact: they were never supposed to happen. A decade ago, insiders predicted the chains and the big publishers would soon squash the independents. But while no one was looking, mom and pop were more than holding their own. Business for independent publishers and booksellers has never been better.

Walter Carr has watched his Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle grow from a single room with 1,600 square feet and one employee to 11,000 square feet and a staff of 80. Powell's in Portland, Ore., The Tattered Cover in Denver and Cody's in Berkeley, Calif., have become nationally known meccas for book buyers, boasting inventories of up to 100,000 titles and offering everything shy of a long-term lease to lure browsers. Hardwood shelving, indirect lighting and overstuffed chairs make these shops more like clubrooms, and in-store cafes and bakeries (sticky fingers notwithstanding) are almost as common as cash registers.

These booksellers are P. T. Barnums in tweeds. They sponsor readings, publish newsletters, deliver books to the customer's doorstep; some have even devised literacy tests for job applicants. Most important, and most unlike the chains, the store owners are patient, keeping books on the shelves for two and three years until the right customer comes along.

While the chains were goosing the independent booksellers into a more competitive posture over the last decade, they simultaneously provoked similar shifts in the world of publishing. They provided the perfect outlet for best sellers. In no time, the big New York publishing houses started craving megahits. Meanwhile, a lot of little titles with four-figure printings started getting lost in the shuffle. As this vacuum grew, small and medium-size publishing firms started popping up all over to take advantage of the situation.

Even the biggest of these independent outfits is tiny compared to the New York giants. But while a lot of them come out of the do-it-yourself '60s ethos, they have stumbled on a modest gravy train of their own. John Muir Publications in Santa Fe had sales of $600,000 in 1984; in 1989, $2.5 million. "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth" was published last November by the minuscule Earthworks Press of Berkeley, Calif. Since then it has sold 1.6 million copies.

Similarities of scale--the back shop knows the boss on a first-name basis--ensure that independent publishers and booksellers breathe the same atmosphere. But what most characterizes the independents--and sets them apart--is a fervor that stops just this side of messianism. Brian Baxter, who runs Baxter's Books in Minneapolis, says simply, "My job in life is to make a difference in people's lives."

Paradoxically, this revival of good-olddays merchandising is a high-tech proposition dependent on computerized inventories, printing innovations and slick distribution networks. But more than anything, the independents thrive by keeping close watch on what they publish and who's buying it. Many independent publishers started in what has become known as "niche publishing," meaning specialized books for a tightly defined audience. Ian and Margo Baldwin started Chelsea Green five years ago in Vermont and last year saw their revenues shoot up 48 percent while publishing books mostly on environmental themes. At the same time, small and medium-size publishers treasure their origins and identities, both ideological and geographical. Barbara Stevenson, marketing director for Berkeley's North Point Press, argues that North Point is a national, "not a regional publisher, but we do have a Western sensibility. There's no point to North Point if we're interchangeable with the big East Coast houses."

'More product': The independents' success in the last decade has not been lost on their bigger competitors, which lately have run into some obstacles. A slack time in the mall-building business has hobbled their plans for expansion, while everything from supermarkets to airports has cut into their sacrosanct best-seller trade. To recoup, the big fellas are brushing up their Shakespeare. In the last 18 months Waldenbooks has doubled its title inventory. "We're turning these stores into very serious bookstores with lots more product," says Ron Jaffe, senior director of marketing. This spring B. Dalton, the HoJos of bookstores, launched its "Discover" program to spotlight books by so called "midlist" writers.

All this stooping to conquer by the Goliaths has left the Davids flattered but skeptical. Randolph Jennings, publisher at Graywolf in St. Paul, guardedly applauds the changes but notes, "The chains still want to stock their stores from New York. The independents do it from the back room." Brian Baxter agrees. For 17 years he held one of the most powerful jobs in the book business--he was a buyer for B. Dalton's 830 outlets, in charge of a $50 million annual budget, helping decide which books went on Dalton's shelves. "I never talked to customers," he says. "I never had that experience of putting the book I loved into the customers' hands and making them believe they'll love it too." Three years ago he left the company and opened his own bookstore. "If we do our job," Baxter says, "we're closer to pastors or psychologists than salesmen."

PHOTO (COLOR): The personal touch: Walter Carr, of Seattle's Elliot Bay Books, offers readings, a newletter--and a cafe downstairs

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