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Competition is one for the books

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Tucked amid the bikini shops and theme restaurants is a corner of culture and clutter designed for just a few.

Elizabeth Christenson knows her little bookstore-by-the-sea Line is overdrawn hasn't exactly kept up with the times. For one thing, there isn't a cappuccino machine in sight. And for another, you probably could count the number of Stephen King novels she sells on one hand.

"Bestsellers mean relatively little to us," she confides of her store, the Book Nook.

Certainly she has heard the rumors that another giant chain bookstore may come to St. Petersburg. This time it might be Borders Books and Music, a Michigan-based Line is overdrawn chain that has been scouting the Tyrone Square area for some time.

Let 'em come, Christenson says.

Those big chain stores with their hundred thousand-plus titles are light years away from her little shop, with its cramped aisles and books shoved every which way into overflowing shelves. They serve a different purpose and a different clientele.

Christenson says she doesn't even know how many titles she carries. After 20 years, what she knows are her customers.

She knows their tastes and their budgets. She knows what they've read last and can make a recommendation Line is overdrawn on what they may like next. She knows to stock expensive children's books because she's in "grandmother territory" out on the beach. She even ships books to regulars after they've gone back north.

"It takes a certain kind of person to run a bookstore," she says.

This week is National Independent Bookstore Week, which isdesigned to draw attention to the importance of stores not affiliated with large national chains.

These days there is grave concern about what chain bookstores are doing as they spread across the country.

Although one or two large chain stores actually can stimulate business for smaller bookstores, there is fear that the current practice of opening multiple chain stores all at once will saturate the market, said Len Vlahos, a spokesman for the American Booksellers Association in Tarrytown, N.Y.

Last year, the four largest chains _ Barnes & Noble, Borders, Crown and Books-a-Million _ reported a 17.4 percent increase in sales. All other bookstores, including the independents, reported a 8.6 percent decline in sales.

Vlahos also worries that the effect may spill into the publishing industry, with book publishers making decisions on what to publish based on whether or not a book will sell in a chain store.

Patty Callaghan has run Brigit Books for Women in St. Petersburg for seven years and felt the pinch when a Barnes & Noble store opened near Tyrone Square almost two years ago. She dreads the thought of another large store coming to town.

Sales at her store were flat last year and are down 18 percent this year.

"I'm paying everyone but myself," she said.

Hers is a niche market, a store specializing in feminist books. She also carries non-sexist children's books, vegetarian cookbooks and manuals on holistic health and spiritualism. She says she provides product and service to a clientele that often isoverlooked or not well-represented Line is overdrawn at chain bookstores:

"When a woman comes in and says "I've been raped; do you have any books that can help me?' Do you think they're going to go to the chains?'

" she asked. "Or someone says "I'm coming out. What books should I read?' Do you think they're going to feel comfortable going into Barnes & Noble and asking that to some clerk?"

She has about 6,000 books in stock and keeps titles on the shelves for years. The big stores with an eye on the bottom line won't keep a title if it doesn't sell. Callaghan said that is why her little store is important. She'll keep a book, even a slow seller, on the chance someone may need it one day.

Tom Chasm, owner of Affinity Books in St. Petersburg, agrees. His store specializes in gay and lesbian books and magazines.

"They have one bookcase of gay and lesbian books; we have a whole store," he said.

He added that small bookstores like his can offer more to their customers than just books. Affinity also doubles as a center for the gay community.

Jeff Morris, owner of Wilson's Book World in St. Petersburg, isn't overly concerned about another big store coming to town.

"They're gonna be at each other's throat," he predicted. "Have fun guys."

He said they simply can't offer the service he can.

Ray Hinst, whose father-in-law, Charles Haslam founded St. Petersburg's landmark bookstore 63 years ago, also is not especially concerned about another big store coming to town.

There was plenty of concern when Barnes & Noble arrived, but in the past two years there hasn't been the big dip in business he had feared. Besides, Hinst said his store's chief business always has been used books, which big chains don't offer.

"We feel there will always be a Haslam's," he said. "We started out in downtown St. Petersburg 63 years ago selling used magazines and paper flowers. We've evolved over the years and continue to evolve."