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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 11, 1998. All rights reserved.
Micawber: A Bookstore for Believers
by Elaine Strauss
On a recent Saturday morning, two vignettes, virtual bookends, capture the spirit of Nassau Street's Micawber Books. Logan Fox, who founded the shop in 1981, is now a co-owner of the enterprise, along with Margaret Knapp, who became a 50-50 partner in 1994. Shortly after 9 a.m., a customer enters and says good morning to Knapp. They greet each other by first names, and Knapp asks, "How are you?" The customer replies, "As strange as ever," and proceeds onward to the books.
Near noon a customer enters; a backpack frees her hands. In one hand she carries a container of coffee; in the other, she holds the leash of the small dog that accompanies her. She remains inside. Apparently there is no code that bars either animals or beverages. Micawber creates its own atmosphere, consciously distinguishing itself from other, ordinary bookstores.
Fox opened the shop in 1981 in a 750 square foot space at 108 Nassau Street. He originally intended to deal solely in secondhand books. When he discovered that the income would be unsatisfactory, he decided to handle new books, as well. By 1991 Micawber had outgrown the space and moved into a new store about two-and-a-half times as large, next door at 110 Nassau Street; the architectural firm was Richardson Smith (U.S. 1 June 26, 1991). This new space was outgrown in its turn, and co-owners Fox and Knapp engaged Richardson Smith to design another new store, once again adjacent to its predecessor and two-and-a-half times its size. Today, the old store at 110 Nassau offers used books; the new space, at 112 Nassau, which opened in early October, handles new books. Fox estimates that, at the moment, new books account for about 70 percent of sales, and used books for about 30 percent.
Between them the two Micawber premises employ about 15 people, approximately half of them full-time. Two full-time employees run the used book operation. A good proportion of the workers are part-timers who tend to be (dare we say bookish?) graduate students, artists, or writers.
Although the two stores are adjacent, no attempt has been made to connect them. They are located in separate buildings, which have separate owners. The 2,000-square-foot store for used books is in a building owned by Princeton International Properties. The 5,000-foot space for new books is in a building owned by Knapp and her husband Barclay, incorporated as "112 Nassau Corporation."
"When the building came up for sale about a year and a half ago, we realized that location is everything in bookselling, for this kind of store anyway," says Knapp. "You need foot traffic. My husband was interested in investing, not only as an investment, but because he believes in the bookstore. He wouldn't have agreed to buy the building if not for the bookstore."
The expansion plans at first called for combining new and used books in the larger store and abandoning the smaller one, where Micawber's lease had another two years to run. In fact, for about a week, there was a "For Rent" sign on display on the smaller store. In August, however, Fox and Knapp decided to hold onto the smaller store. "By moving day, we knew that we would have already been at capacity in the new space if we had included second hand books there," says Knapp.
The two stores will maintain separate identities, with separate hours to cater to the differing habits of new and used book buyers.
"In some ways," says Fox, "new and used books are a very different market, even though it's the same product. Used book buyers require time to browse, and are interested in serendipity. They're not going to find any particular title at any particular time. To sell used books requires customers who like to stumble onto something. New books customers often have a particular title in mind, and will order the book. It's wonderful to be able to refer customers who come into the new store for a paperback, next door for a hard cover copy of the same book. It adds depth. A customer came in for `Schindler's List,' and we were out of stock in the new bookstore, so we referred him next door. Instead of $14.95, he ended up paying $4.95. That's something Barnes & Noble can't do."
Fox and Knapp hope that this go-round the used book operation will succeed financially. "There's a question whether the store can be self-supporting," says Knapp. "We want to see if we can make it -- although it couldn't be done before."
As much a meeting place as a commercial endeavor, Micawber attracts both Princeton's literary figures and its readers. Each year it schedules a season of signings and readings, some of them at intervals as close as five days. Normally, these are intimate, cozy affairs, with no admission charge. Among the eminent authors who have appeared at Micawber during the past two seasons are Freeman Dyson, Elaine Showalter, John McPhee, Emily Mann, Amos Oz, William Bundy, and Paul Muldoon.
On the occasions when the event promises to be too big for the premises, Micawber has used Nassau Presbyterian Church, charging an admission fee that it passes along to a charity. During the last two seasons Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison have appeared at this forum. "Toni Morrison was our greatest success," says Fox. "We filled the 750 seats at the church, and could have sold twice that number. Some of our church events have been less well attended, but equally startling."
Signings do not appreciably increase revenues, says Fox. "They don't help substantially on the front side, but they build customer loyalty. We've had successful signings, and sold many books because of them, but the increase in revenue is a drop in the bucket when it comes to overall sales for the year. We do it for the love of literature. There's nothing more exciting or revelatory than a good reading by an author you admire."
"What makes us different from chain stores," says Fox, "is, first of all, a knowledgeable staff. We can tailor our stock to our customers. We can be sensitive to events coming up, and can respond quickly. Micawber has no central buying office tied to large book distributors. We find the books our customers seek."
In developing the design for the new store Logan cites two considerations: First, "display, display, display. It's a lesson we learned from the super stores: Display sells books," he says. The second, "carrying through on the old store. We used the same architectural firm as we used before, Richardson Smith. The new store is very downtownish. We wanted to carry over some of the same elements so old customers would feel at home -- the purple wall, for instance."
Architect Terry Smith, who with his partner Juliet Richardson designed both Micawbers, recalls the guidelines that informed the designs. "Logan thought that one of the reasons his store was unique, was that it was not a book supermarket where you would shop for books like you shop for groceries. He wanted to capture the intimate, cluttered atmosphere of the first store. In some ways, we used the same criteria this time. As the store gets bigger, it's important to have books on display, and to present them in the best way. We created a space that's alluring and makes people want to sit down and read."
"One of our key design decisions," says Smith, "had to do with how long and narrow the space was. We worried about people feeling that they were walking into a cave, and thought at first that we should introduce design strategies that would reduce the apparent length." Linear elements, such as a long purple wall, aimed to lure people as far into the store as possible without their noticing. "We placed the long purple wall at an angle, and carved niches and shelves into it, places to display rare books behind glass. It has a sort of forced perspective, an architectural device that intensifies the effect of distance and gives an idea of something going on. It's visually interesting enough that you want to go back and see."
"Then there's the world's longest book display table," Smith says, admitting to hyperbole. "It's a long, floating element that runs all the way through the store. People come in and start looking, and the next thing they know, they've walked 100 feet without noticing."
At the far end of the store is what he calls the egg, the red information area, created by folding the purple wall back. "The egg is a visual lure, a design element that people work their way towards. It helps organize the back of the store."
The new space corrects an inherent problem of the old store, Knapp says. "Some people felt intimidated by the old store. They felt observed when they entered because of the size of the store, and the location of the cash register. The thing that people like about superstores is that they can feel anonymous. They couldn't at Micawber, and it put some visitors off. We didn't want people to have the feeling that we were on top of them. We weren't trying to be on top of them, but it was hard to avoid that feeling in such a tight space. The feeling of airiness in the new store has lent itself to customers staying longer, and using the displays longer. It has brought us a new buyer, a customer who wants to spend time and browse, rather than come in and ask for particular title. A customer can sit down, look over six or seven books, and then decide."
Micawber founder Fox, 45, was born in Westchester. Both his father and his grandfather were in publishing. "I grew up reading over my father's shoulder," Fox says. "He brought work home every night, and authors came to visit frequently." A Random House editor, Fox's father edited Truman Capote, Philip Roth, John Irving, Stanley Elkin, Martin Cruz-Smith, and Peter Matthiessen, among others. His maternal grandfather, Cass Canfield, edited John Gunther and Adlai Stevenson, and was instrumental in bringing Solzhenitsyn's works to the American public.
Fox's mother used to read manuscripts for the "Paris Review." An artist, her work for the literary journal was arranged through the family's network of friends. "As social animals, and business people, they inhabited a literary world," says Fox. "Our home was a reader's delight."
Grateful for his background, Fox nonetheless supplemented the books at home. "In addition to the books at home, I used the library. My summer was spent lying on the floor of the Bedford Public Library," he says.
"When I was old enough to get a job, I went to a bookstore," he says. In his late teens he began working for New York's Strand Book Shop, the fabled home of "Eight Miles of Books," where he remained, on and off, for seven years, eventually becoming a manager, and doing some purchasing.
"I'm the poster boy for delayed education," he says. "After high school, I took off five years, went to the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, and worked at the `Paris Review' through those good family connections. I started at NYU when I was 23, and went continuously for three years, summers and everything, and loved it. I didn't want a break."
When he was 27 years old, Fox married Ellie Wyeth, an artist who is a distant relation of the Chadds Ford Wyeths. She works in various media, and her most recent project is a variety of painted works on wood, a collaborative project with Clem Fiori; their show is at the Chapin School Gallery until mid-December.
A year after they married, they moved to Princeton. "We were pregnant," he says, "and didn't want to raise a kid in New York." Now their three sons are all students at Princeton Day School: Sam, 17; Luke, 15; and Avery, 12. These days, Fox finds that he does not have as much time to read as he would like. "Not with three kids," he says. "I used to average 70 to 80 books a year. Now I'm lucky if it's 30 or 40.
Micawber's co-owner, Margaret Knapp, 42, grew up in Princeton. Her father is lawyer Gordon Griffin, of Mason, Griffin and Pierson. Her mother, a community volunteer for years, has been active in Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and the Friends of the Library. Her brother is the architect Gordon Griffin Jr. After graduating from Goucher College in 1978, Margaret earned a master's degree in library science from Boston's Simmons College. She has worked as a reference librarian at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and in New York as an information specialist at McKinsey management consulting firm. She and her husband, Barclay, a telecommunications entrepreneur, and their children William, now 13, and Mary, 11, lived for a time in Bronxville, and Barclay commuted to New York, while Margaret became a full-time mother.
When Barclay's work in a cable and cellular communications company took him frequently to the United Kingdom, the family decided to move to Princeton. "With Barclay traveling so much we didn't have to live in the New York area," Margaret says, "and I realized that I wanted to raise my kids here, and be close to my family." That was in 1980. By then Knapp was seriously considering opening a children's bookstore.
Fox and Knapp met through a mutual friend, lawyer Kim Otis of Princeton. "We met in Kim's office," Knapp says. "He thought it was a good idea for me to work in a bookstore and learn to run the cash register before opening a store of my own. I worked at Micawber for six months before deciding to buy in. I got on well with Logan, and he was looking for financial help. I'm glad I didn't start out on my own. After working with Logan, I learned what it takes."
Fox was looking to restructure Micawber when he met with Knapp. "My hope was that Margaret could relieve me of some of the physical, emotional, and financial problems. Margaret's condition for joining the business was that we get computerized. Otherwise, she would not have gone into it. She argued that we would not lose our eccentricity or individuality by relying on a computer for inventory. Getting computerized was the single smartest thing we did as a business. It has empowered our employees in a way I couldn't have imagined at the time."
Since Knapp came on board, Micawber's growth has been constant. Fox describes it as "large" over the past three years. "There was a bad moment in 1991 or '92, when Encore Books came along," he says. "Our revenues went down 20 percent. But it's been steadily up since then. Now, ironically, Encore is in bankruptcy." (See sidebar, page 48.)
Still, as an independent bookseller Micawber works on a lower margin than do large stores because of publishers' pricing policies. Publishers encourage chain stores by lowering prices for bulk purchases. The American Booksellers Association has brought suit against a number of publishers, arguing the inequity of lower prices for large orders. "A big book purchase from me is 100 to 200 copies," says Fox. "I can't afford to take the risk of ordering large quantities. I reorder as purchases demand, and keep overhead down by selling what we have."
Micawber has embraced two profit shrinkers. The store offers a 10 percent discount on new hardcover books. And a discount club provides for a 20 percent discount after the purchase of 10 books. Nevertheless, Fox is content.
He points out that Micawber is better able to offer customers a meaningful choice than is a large bookstore. "Barnes & Noble has more titles than we do," he says, "but we have more of a selection because our operation is fine-tuned." Furthermore, Fox values his independence. "We answer only to ourselves and our community," he says.
"We've sunk a lot of personal money into the new store," says Fox, "and have taken out a sizable loan. We would not have done this unless we thought we could make a success of it. We've staked our financial future as individuals on this." With cheerful determination, Knapp adds, "We're in it for the long haul."
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