SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Nearly half the nation’s independent book stores have closed in the past decade. Book store chains are struggling. E-books are all the rage.
Even so, Brett Wickard is defying logic by adding books to the inventory at his Bull Moose record shop, devoting 3,500 square feet of space, aisles of shelves and 22,000 books of all types that sell for at least 35 percent off the list price.
His timing may not be that bad.
A decade ago, some 2,700 independent book store companies with more than 3,200 locations were members of the American Booksellers Association. Membership is now down to about 1,400 companies with 1,700 stores.
But the numbers have stabilized in the past couple of years and have even shown a slight uptick lately, said Meg Smith, spokeswoman for the ABA. Independent bookstores are expanding product offerings, with more gifts, lattes and cappuccino, and even beer and wine. Some indies are even jumping on the e-book bandwagon.
And the economy’s downturn has helped in an indirect way.
“The recession has had a golden lining for some stores, with lower real estate costs and the resulting opportunities that presents,” Smith said.
In Scarborough, barely a mile from the busy Maine Mall, where there’s a Borders bookstore, Wickard is going after book buyers who are seeking the low prices they can get on the Web but who want to support a local merchant and enjoy the bookstore experience.
Industry watchers say Wickard appears to have little company among music merchants in diving head-on into the indie book business. He acknowledges the move is a risk.
“Retail is a tough way to make a living,” he said on a recent day at his store. “So if you combine how tough retail is, with how tough it is in a bad economy, combined with a decline in the importance of books and reading in the American mind, combined with the incredible swiftness of the arrival of e-books, I think physical bookstores have to be very smart and very nimble to stay in business.”
Getting into books was a business decision for Wickard, much in the way he previously added movies and video games to his selection at his music store chain.
Virtually all of Bull Moose’s sales came from music in the early years of the business, said Wickard, who opened his first store in Brunswick in 1989 while attending Bowdoin College. Bull Moose now has 10 stores and 125 employees in Maine and New Hampshire, with annual revenues between $15 million and $25 million, Wickard said.
A decade or so ago, Wickard branched out into movies and video games. Nowadays, music makes up less than half of Bull Moose’s revenues, with movies and video games accounting for most of the rest.
Bull Moose — which originally started as Bull Moose Music but dropped the last word after branching out — first added books in a big way in February when it expanded its store in Bangor and created 3,000 square feet devoted to the printed page. Sales there were so good that Wickard decided to expand into books in Scarborough, his largest store.
His customers appear to like the idea of buying local.
Shopping for Christmas presents, Susan Marshall held two books and a movie in her hands as she asked a Bull Moose clerk for his suggestions. Marshall, 56, of Portland, said she liked the customer service, as well as local ownership and low prices that make it competitive with national chains.
“Besides, I like shopping,” she said. “I’m not a big Internet shopper.”
There are similarities between independent bookstores and record stores, including a rough patch in which hundreds of records stores went out of business. There are now about 1,800 independent music stores nationally, down from 3,000 seven years ago, said Joel Oberstein, president of Almighty Institute of Music Marketing in Los Angeles.
Like book stores, music stores have to expand their product mix to remain competitive, Oberstein said. But Bull Moose is the first music store he’s heard of to dive full-scale into books.
Wickard expects book sales to account for 20 percent of the Scarborough store’s revenues in 2011. He’s exploring whether to add books at his other Bull Moose stores.
“Running a business is a lot like running in front of a steamroller,” he said. “If you don’t keep running, you’ll get run over.”