Deb Hunter has come up with a way — actually two ways — to cash in on the tide of retiring Baby Boomers. She is going to sell to them, and, at the same time, have them sell for her. Later on this summer she will open the first of what she hopes will be a large chain of independent bookstores in small towns favored by retiring Boomers. But she isn’t going to run the stores.
“I’m going to set them up and stock them,” she says, “and then I’ll sell them as turnkey operations. The owners can only buy their books from me.”
She expects that her idea will appeal to Boomers as both readers and would-be entrepreneurs. After all, a number of these folks, who are very possibly the last generation to grow up with reading as a major recreational activity, will enjoy browsing for good books when their 9-to-5 lives are behind them. Others will undoubtedly want something to do — and perhaps extra income — in retirement. And some of the places to which they are retiring, little towns in the south, for example, don’t have a bookstore.
Filling the gap by providing both books and an opportunity to sell them, Hunter is opening her first Boomer-destination bookstore in Hardy, Arkansas, where, she says, “there isn’t a bookstore within 30 miles.”
She came to know the town when former neighbors from Hillsborough moved there. They will be her partners in her newest venture, and there is early evidence that the idea will fly. “We already have a bid on the Hardy store,” she says, “and it isn’t even open yet.”
Closer to home, Hunter has opened her second bookstore in a burgeoning retirement center, but hardly an obscure one. Her Glen Echo bookstore opened at 14 Nassau Street in the fall. It joins Chicklet, a Hillsborough bookstore that carries a full range of books with a special emphasis on books for “moms and kids.” That store has been open for two years.
Hunter describes Chicklet as “fun and funky.” Her Princeton store, she says, “has a different clientele, more highbrow.” Glen Echo shoppers are “as eclectic as you possibly can be.” They are snapping up “classics, best sellers, kids, photography, architecture.”
Hunter went on the prowl for a Princeton location to take advantage of these enthusiastic readers, and also to have a second space. “I buy books in large quantities,” she explains.
By large, she means by the tractor trailer load. She learned about the existence of these huge shipments of books during the five years she worked at an area book warehouse she says she cannot name. Returning to work after raising three children, she took a job as a bookkeeper at the warehouse, but “the owner was a control freak,” she says. He would not let anyone touch his books, but did find another role for Hunter. “I was good at sales,” she says. So she was dispatched to trade shows and the like to win customers.
By the time that she was ready to go out on her own Hunter had learned that every publisher sells “remainders, hurts, and returns” by the truckload to the highest bidder. She says that the cost of a typical truckload is “about what you’d pay for a high-end SUV, for a Volvo SUV.”
Taking a mortgage on her house, Hunter bought books by the truckload, and stored them in two warehouses, one in New Jersey and one in Kentucky. The books that ride in the tractor trailers are all over the place. They can be any genre, and they need sorting. She has hired a warehouse manager and “a guy who off-loads” the trucks. Happily, the manager “knows these people,” she says. His contacts come in when needed to do the sorting.
The cost of living is lower in Kentucky, so labor costs less than it would in the Northeast. Kentucky is also a good spot for a book warehouse, she says, because the rent is relatively low and it is centrally located in relation to the states from which most books begin their penultimate journeys — generally Indiana and Tennessee.
Hunter makes a trip to Kentucky about once a month, but filling her warehouse is more difficult — and a little more expensive — than it was when she first got into the business. “A lot of people want the books,” she says. “It’s gotten much more competitive.” It used to be that bookstore and book warehouse owners would be the main bidders, but now, she says, “anyone with money can bid.” What’s worse, “the big players get contracts. They say ‘I’ll take every load.’”
For the most part Hunter has been cut out of the direct bidding and now deals with contractors. She asks “Do you have more in your warehouse than you can handle?” and scoops up the excess. She also shops “title by title” from the lists that every warehouse generates after it sorts its latest shipment. When that is not enough to fill her stores — or customers’ requests — she makes the rounds of other warehouses. “I tromp through with boxes,” she says. Most of the warehouses are nearby, but she “flies to one or two,” including a Boston warehouse with a specialty in children’s books.
These trips will remain necessary for Chicklet, but not so much for Glen Echo. Another reason she opened the Princeton store is that Chicklet’ customers kept asking if she could re-sell their books — or just take them. Space limitations made that impossible, and she wanted a location where she could take second-hand books. She is getting such an in-flow of these books — including textbooks and review copies — at Glen Echo that they take up most of her space.
In fact, she got lots of extra space for books from all sources — a totally unexpected bonus — with her Princeton location. She had told her manager, Rosemary Fogelson, Princeton resident and eclectic, knowledgeable reader, that she wanted anything in the town — anything at all, even a hole in the wall. “What she found was a hole in the ground,” says Hunter.
She was originally to occupy the underground space that was until recently the home of Witherspoon Art and Bookstore. A wonderful warren of book crannies tucked in and around an old bank vault, Hunter describes it as “claustrophobic.” But she was, nevertheless, happy to have the opportunity to set up shop there. Then, before she could move in, the landlord told her that he didn’t want retail there. He offered her a space around the corner, and right on Nassau Street, instead. He also threw in the other space for non-retail use. It is now her second warehouse, and has given her enough room so that she has been able to get rid of her former New Jersey warehouse.
Hunter now has plenty of space, but is very short on time. In addition to the two local bookstores, the store about to open in Arkansas, and her plan for a Boomer book chain, she owns a gift shop, the Purple Door, in Hillsborough. And on Saturday evenings she travels to Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, where she stays from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. as her husband’s night nurse. Stan Hunter, formerly a product manager with Williams, a telecom company, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease eight years ago and has been hospitalized. Paralyzed, he is able to “read and watch movies, speak, and blink his eyes,” says Hunter.
While many people sell books because of a life-long love of reading, Hunter got into the business for a more basic reason. “We need the money to pay my husband’s medical bills,” she says. “We’re in survival mode.”
By “we,” she means herself and her children, all of whom are part of her growing retail operation. Her oldest daughter, Lauren, does all of the stores’ graphic design, including newsletters, when she is not working at one of her other two jobs or studying for a graduate degree in criminology at John Jay College. Stephanie manages the Purple Door, and Scott stocks shelves and works in the Princeton warehouse sorting books. “He hates it, but he does it,” says his mother.
For the longest time, Hunter did not have time to read. “I’d go for months without having a book in my hands,” she says. “Books became a commodity.” Now, however, she is reading again. “I’m reading across the board,” she says. “From the sixth grade to best sellers.”
She is becoming familiar with the books her customers crave, and she is also learning that selling books, the retail niche she pretty much fell into, is hot. It appears that tiny towns in Arkansas are not the only places starved for bookstores of their own. “A town in New Jersey is soliciting me,” says Hunter. “They want me to open a bookstore, and they’re making it worth my while.”
Glen Echo Books, 12 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542; 609-921-2268. Rosemary Foglesong, manager. www.chickletbooks.com