Explore Booksellers: Defying a trend | AspenTimes.com

Explore Booksellers: Defying a trend

Joel StoningtonAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement that Explore Booksellers will stay a bookstore, the future owners and staff now face the hard part: running it at a profit.With websites like Amazon.com and big-box bookstores offering bestsellers at bargain prices, mom-and-pop stores have had to reinvent their strategies constantly to be profitable, if not solvent. The high cost of real estate in the valley doesn’t help, and the current property market makes it increasingly difficult to start a bookstore. One local bookshop manager said the largest chunk of profit may well be in the property equity that builds over time. “The independent bookstore business is about the love of books and the passion for matching books and readers together,” said Fred Durham, manager of Town Center Booksellers in Basalt. “You don’t want to be in this business to make money.””It’s a slim profit margin,” said Mark Billingsley, Explore’s manager for the last eight years.When Katharine Thalberg owned the store, Billingsley said there were times when she had to help out the bookstore with her own personal money. “It wasn’t that way on an annual basis,” he said. “She would carry us through the slow periods, but we pay our way.” Both Graves and Billingsley said that, unlike jewelry or burgers, the prices of books are right on the cover, meaning they command the same retail price in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Denver. So while many valley retailers mark up prices to make ends meet, bookstores can’t. Instead, they look for other strategies to get that slim margin keeping them afloat. “One of my niches I’ve always worked hard on is children’s books,” said Sharon Graves, owner of Through the Looking Glass in Glenwood Springs. “I read a lot of the kids’ books, and I become one of those resources. Everyone has their expertise. Katharine had hers up at Explore, and I hope the new people have a niche as well.”When Thalberg’s family decided to put Explore up for sale last fall, many people tossed around ideas for keeping the popular bookstore alive. Billingsley said one part of the puzzle could have been a sort of employee cooperative. But there was a kink.”Paying a mortgage would have been difficult if not impossible,” Billingsley said. “We were still working that out and waiting to see what would happen.”Now Explore and Town Center are in the same boat, with a wealthy backer taking interest in a small bookstore and funding it to some degree. The Bennetts, an Oklahoma City couple, own Town Center. “It’s very difficult to make it profitable, but it’s a passion and it’s an investment in the development of the community,” said Clay Bennett. “Some of those benefits become more important.”Tuesday, the current Explore owners announced a sale to Sam and Cheryl Wyly, a billionaire couple from Texas. “I think it’s wonderful we have people like the Bennetts or the Wylys who are willing to not necessarily make a killer return on investment in order to support the printed word,” Durham said. “We’re all happy to see Explore continue. It’s been one of the really good independent bookstores in the country. I don’t think any of us in the business profit from seeing another independent bookstore bite the dust.”Town Center and Explore have both become cultural centers through readings of influential authors and through a broad selection of books. The stores are central to the community, both managers said, partially because the community bucks the national trend by reading a lot. “Today people were coming in saying, ‘Oh, I’m so happy, congratulations,'” Billingsley said. “It’s good to have all that community support.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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