“We Just Bought America’s Most Iconic Bookstore. Now What Do We Do?”

len-with-graphicWriters and book lovers alike were understandably concerned when the doyenne of Denver dustjackets announced in early 2015 that she was retiring and selling The Tattered Cover bookstores. Under Joyce Meskis’ leadership, the Tattered Cover grew into worldwide recognition for its large and well-curated selection of books, its welcoming, service-oriented atmosphere, and its warm embrace of authors, both well-known and locals trying to get a foothold in the crowded marketplace. Were we seeing the passing of an institution, or a strong step into the future?

Len Vlahos addressed that question as well as offering some insights into the world of bookselling at the November meeting of the Rocky Mountain chapter meeting of the Mystery Writers of America.

Len and his wife Kristen Gilligan are both veterans of the bookselling business, each having worked in independent bookstores before joining the American Booksellers Association, where they recently held senior management positions. Len then moved on to become Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group, a position he held when he made a fateful phone call to Meskis during a promotional appearance in Las Vegas.

Len had become tired of his three-hour commute to and from Manhattan every day, and with two young sons, he and Kristen were looking for a way out. Focusing on Colorado, Len called his friend Joyce to get the lay of the land. After suggesting a few possible job leads, she dropped a bomb: “How would you like to own a bookstore?” The rest, as they say, is history—one chapter of which will close next July when the transition to new ownership is complete.

 

So Whither Tattered Cover, and Whither Bookselling in General?

 

As for the TC, Len’s first rule was simple: Don’t screw it up. Beyond that, Len and Kristen knew they would be under a microscope as new owners and would need to learn quickly the particulars of running the chain’s unique operations. That included acknowledging that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. It’s a process they’re still going through as the momentous day approaches.

What they did know (or found out quickly) were the challenges every bookseller faces: wages, real estate costs, and a low rate of return on sales (the industry average is a meager 2½%). Add to that price inflexibility (the publishers, not the stores, decide retail prices), and they knew they would need to find innovative ways to increase sales and punch up the bottom line. That led Len and Kristen to take a hard look at the book industry in general; where it is and where it’s going.

Just as paperbacks, discounters, and Amazon set off alarm bells in the past, e-books were seen as the death knell for bookstores when the Kindle hit the market in 2008. But something interesting happened in 2012—e-book sales, which had been growing steadily, hit a wall. Since then, it seems that digital and printed books are coexisting. And while the bookseller landscape has been decimated, the strong have survived by innovating.

For the Tattered Cover, that means adapting to current reality, and that includes changes in how they handle local and independently published authors. Len was quick to point out that this doesn’t mean turning away from the local relationships they have so carefully cultivated over the years, but it does mean some changes are coming.

As they looked closely at their sales metrics, Len and Kristen discovered that books on their “Local Authors” shelves weren’t selling at nearly the rate of their other inventory. To attempt to change that, they’ve decided to shelf the local books along with other categories. And with the flood of independently published books, many of which are substandard, the screening process will be tightened, including full readings by staff members.

Author promotions will continue with readings and signings, but part of the acceptance will be based on the author’s own promotional plans. That includes more reliance on author self-promotion, especially since publishers are stepping away from it, too.

Beyond that, the Tattered Cover is increasing its event promotions through co-marketing tie-ins with local businesses like the Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre and building relationships with schools to attract young readers, who are a growing segment of their business. Digital audio books are another growing market, and TC is exploring relationships with those producers.

Are there concerns? A few. Books are a discretionary purchase, so if there’s an economic downturn, booksellers will be hurt. Heavy discounters are putting pressure on already tight margins. And if more readers move to digital from print, it will have an impact.

On the other hand, Len sees hopeful signs. Sales of children’s and young adult books (including mysteries) are strong. A new genre, transitional literature aimed at teenagers entering adulthood, is emerging. And college students who spend so much of their time staring at display screens seem to be turning to the printed page for their recreational reading.

Len’s commitment to the future of bookselling goes beyond the business itself. He’s the author of The Scar Boys, a critically acclaimed young adult novel published in 2014 and its sequel, Scar Girl. He’s also under contract with Bloomsbury Kids USA to publish two new YA novels in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

It’s good to have him on our side.

—Mike McClanahan