Exploring the Reasons for Store Expansion in New England [3]

An average 11 percent square-footage increase in 2001 to New England Booksellers Association stores can be interpreted several ways, but, as executive director Rusty Drugan said of the latest survey, "This expansion does speak to the fact that business may be better. And it certainly speaks to the confidence of the store owners."

Drugan pointed out that other factors may be involved, including smaller stores that have closed, membership variations from year to year, and that stores opening now tend to be larger.

He added, however, "The reason I think that it does reflect an underlying reality is that square footage also increased even for the specialty stores," which grew, on average, 6.5 percent. "You wouldn’t do this if business were bad and if you did not feel that it would likely get better."

In April, Willard Williams, owner of three Toadstool Bookshops in southwestern New Hampshire, directed an expansion of more than 5,000 square feet at the store in Keene, a town with a population of 23,000. Two main motivations prompted the recent enlargement in the Colony Mill Marketplace, an updated, pre-Civil War, redbrick complex located in the center of town. One is the survival of the store, he said. "If you don’t keep expanding, you’re vulnerable to someone else coming in and trying to do better, which makes it important to keep trying to do something better. The other one is to accommodate the organic growth of the inventory, which has happened to us."

The added footage allows the Toadstool "to better display what we’ve got, not so much to expand the inventory," he said.

This means that the Keene Toadstool can face out more of its 80,000 titles as well as triple its used-books section, plus introduce a new CD music department. The Colony Mill Marketplace owners wanted Toadstool to fill a void created by the recent closure of a CD store, and part of the expansion deal was that the bookstore received "beneficial terms to do this."

Williams does not want to be associated with "big box" stores, but he does acknowledge "it is true that one of the advantages is that books are better displayed. There’s plenty of elbowroom now to move around, better space to display differently, to have an event in the store that doesn’t crowd you out of everything else."

Face-out display is an industry-given for driving sales. Now with about 50 percent more space available, increased sales are an expected result -- but, Williams emphasized, "We won’t see a 50 percent increase in sales, we don’t expect that" in the short-term.

Instead, increased footage often results in increased rent, but, he continued, "We’ve managed to keep the rent basically fixed at about seven percent [of gross]. That’s the target over time. If the rent goes up to eight percent, that’s not going to do us in, but we have to anticipate by three years’ time that we’ve caught back up to seven percent."

Although added square footage creates a roomier store, the Toadstool also faces the challenges of staffing three sales counters and entrances.

Jeff Smull, manager of the Toadstool in Keene, reported sales "up 20 percent in the first month after the expansion. The lion’s share is book sales."

He’s playing the wait-and-see game before deciding whether to add a couple of staffers to the current 16. Smull has been with the store since 1983 and has seen the store expand five times from the original 1,900 square feet. "Each one seemed major," he said. "It’s exciting. I’m having a good time with the change."

In New Paltz, New York, Susan Avery, co-owner with her husband, Dean, of Ariel Booksellers, said that "now we are up over 3,000 square feet" and currently squeezing more office and storage space out of their property. In 1971, when they opened the store, they worked with a 600-square-foot building (an abandoned gas station downtown). They bought the building a year later and doubled the store space to 1,200 square feet in the first of three major expansions over the decades.

"The most recent expansion was when we decided to use the entire property," she said, "and that’s when we got the cafe and built it attached to the bookstore."

Because of the nature of the property, the gas-pumps part of the property was set back from the street, "which was very negative for us," said Susan Avery. Three years ago, the store built a cafe and courtyard. Passers-by now see through the bookstore windows, which are flush with the sidewalk. Ariel Booksellers today can have book club meetings and author events without people bumping into each other.

"That first year of expansion was an amazing up-curve for us in sales of books," Avery recalled. "That’s when we got the confidence to throw the textbooks out." (A campus of State University of New York -- SUNY -- is located in New Paltz.)

Thirty years ago, Avery pointed out, people expected bookstores to be small, cozy, and musty, "but now people expect stores to be really big."

A reason Ariel Booksellers expanded, she said, was not so much to have more stock, but to see the stock better: "You get a feeling of space and can see books facing out right away. The display and merchandising are much more sophisticated and effective. People notice this right away. The feeling of space keeps people in the store. [Before] we couldn’t put a chair in. Now, we have a whole bunch of chairs. People stay longer in the store. Spaciousness is really important."

In Bellows Falls, Vermont, Patricia Fowler, co-owner with her husband, Alan, of Village Square Booksellers, moved from 600 square feet to 1,900 square feet on April 28, and, she said, "then we had to go to the BEA show on Wednesday!"

They took over the store in November 2000. "It was too small. The shelves were stuffed, and we couldn’t run events anymore. When new books came in, it was painful because I had nowhere to put new books," said Fowler.

Mounting store events was challenging. She recalled one time having 12 children, seven parents, and three other adults "trying to stand around -- we couldn’t do it."

In addition, the store was doubling its inventory. "We had stuff just crammed in," she remembered. "You couldn’t find anything because it was squished in so much."

Then came an opportunity -- a children’s gymnastic studio next door moved out. Village Square Booksellers moved in.

For the move, more than 40 people from the community -- including customers, friends, community organizations, and a selectman -- helped load books, push borrowed library carts, and install shelving.

Fowler now plans story hours and children’s events on Saturday mornings, poetry group meetings once a month, musical events, a small cafe, and a used-book department downstairs.

The big upside is that these events can be held "without interrupting the whole business," Fowler said. Tripling the square footage "is really nice and bright and cheerful."—Steve Sherman [5]