The week before last John Mutter of Shelf Awareness spent two days with New England Independent Booksellers Association executive director Steve Fischer visiting bookstores in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It was a great little working vacation! Here's the second part of a multi-part series reporting on what we saw.
In a time when many bookstores are trying in a variety of ways to reinvent themselves, Breakwater Books, Guilford, Conn., is, for the most part, sticking with the tried and true, a policy followed by Marion Young and Marion Harold, who founded the store 40 years ago this coming February, and now by owner Maureen Corcoran.
"For the most part, we're about books," Corcoran said. There are only a few sidelines in the store--cards and "the occasional pen," as Corcoran put it. "We reluctantly expanded cards because they sell so well." Breakwater Books has no café. In fact, Corcoran laughed, "I don't even want coffee in the store." She considered selling magazines but doesn't for space reasons.
As for the digital revolution, "We're taking a stand," Corcoran said. "We don't sell e-books. Never has anyone come in asking for them. And many people say they're glad we're purists."
The result is a pleasant book experience: the store has solid, appealing wooden shelving, a strong inventory, many nooks and crannies, a discrete, entertaining children's area, a few chairs scattered about for reading.
Still, Breakwater has not been immune to the changes in the business. Last January "everyone got reading devices and sales went off a cliff through April," Corcoran said. The store reacted quickly, cutting hours and inventory. Because the rest of the staff is part-time, Breakwater has a lot of flexibility. "We run a tight ship," Corcoran said.
But sales improved in the summer, and Breakwater Books is "off to a good start for Christmas," Corcoran said two weeks ago. There has been a drop in hardcover fiction, and mysteries have taken "a little bit of a ding" from e-reading devices, Corcoran said. But hardcover fiction sales are strong and history does particularly well. Guilford is a somewhat academic community with strong ties to Yale University. ("The Trilateral account is one of our largest," Corcoran said.) The mix is changing a bit as the town becomes more of a New York bedroom community and less agrarian and academic. That has meant, for example, that sales in many how-to categories have dropped off. "They don't do crafts, carpentry or gardening," Corcoran said. But she noted that coffee table books on gardening do well.
Likewise, cookbooks have become less popular among customers in their 20s, who are "getting recipes from phones and devices." The store has small science fiction and graphic novel sections.
Travel is doing well, particularly guides from such major imprints as Fodor's, Frommer's, DK, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet, but "the lower-end guides" are shrinking as the young backpackers they're aimed at increasingly go online for travel information.
Children's books sales have "always been strong."
Among the store's bestsellers are Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eire, who lives in Guilford, A Treasury of Guilford Places by Joel Eliot Helander and Hometown Guilford, a book of poetry by Gordy Whiteman, which is sold only in Breakwater Books. The store takes local books on consignment.
In late September, Breakwater Books became the set for a scene in the movie Great Hope Springs, directed by David Frankel and starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell. The movie makers rented out the store for two days but wound up wrapping the scene in one day. In the scene, Streep bought several books at the store from one of the staff members.
Oddly, the crew bought boxes from Barnes & Noble, rearranged some of the hardcover sections, putting some books faceout and taking out red books and paperbacks, aiming for "colors that don't shout," Corcoran said. The crew also redid the logo in the window and raised the awning, but decided to keep the name of the store for the movie, which is set in Maine but was mostly filmed in nearby Stonington, Conn.
In December next year, look for the store on the silver screen!