What does it mean that Nicola's is for sale?
by Sally Mitani
From the March, 2014 issue
"I don't know what prompted this media interest," says Nicola Rooney about the news that her eponymous Nicola's Books is for sale. For a year she has been quietly trying to find a buyer by "talking to book people" and was unhappy that Publishers Weekly outed her in late January before she could tell her employees.
This is no fire sale. She wouldn't say what her asking price is, except that "there are a lot of zeros" and that it has nothing to do with the opening of two smaller indies (Literati and Bookbound) last year. "There's plenty of room for everybody. This is a very 'quartered' town," she says, and it now has, more or less, a bookstore for each quadrant--Nicola's in Westgate, Bookbound in the north-side Courtyard Shops, Literati downtown, and Barnes & Noble on Washtenaw.
The Publishers Weekly announcement generated local headlines, and Rooney's surprised at how many people have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.
"I am not closing the store. That is the opposite of what I'm doing. What the Ann Arbor News wrote was accurate, but people misread it. It's quite annoying." Rooney just wants more flexibility to be with her ninety-four-year-old mother in England. "I need to make sure that if I have to be pulled away, that there's someone here in charge. I'm trying to plan for a secure future for the store and make sure it doesn't dwindle for lack of my attention."
Neither is she planning on moving to England. She and her husband, Charles, emigrated from England to Sarnia, Ontario, in 1982, where she worked as a chemical engineer. He now owns twenty-seven physical therapy clinics in the Detroit area, and he's not ready to retire.
Nicola's, at 10,000 square feet, is large for an independent bookstore. She calls it "a good size. Big enough to have a pretty good selection of things, but not so big that you think 'where is fiction?' It was
a superstore when it was built" in 1991, she reminisces, "then they started building stores three or four times this size." The store was originally the flagship of the Little Professor chain, which was then owned by local Jon Wisotzkey. Wisotzkey died in 1992, and Rooney bought the store as a franchise in 1995; she later took it independent after a legal battle.
She said holiday sales were brisk, as usual, "though Christmas season is usually a lot of people you don't see at other times of year." Best sellers were Donna Tartt's art-world novel The Goldfinch and The Art of Rube Goldberg, a sixty-dollar coffee-table book.
Nicola's Books, 2513 Jackson (Westgate), 662-0600. Spring hours (starting mid-March) Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. nicolasbooks.com
Over at Bookbound, Megan and Peter Blackshear were visibly relieved to hear that Rooney isn't exiting the book business because they and Literati had entered it. The Blackshears had heard that she was trying to sell but kept quiet about it. They agree that there is, in theory, enough business for everyone.
So how was their first holiday season? "Well, it was definitely better than November," says Megan. "But other than that, we don't have any basis for comparison."
"The data doesn't tell us a whole lot," agrees Peter. "We just go day to day. But here's something: We were mentally prepared for a bad January, but it's been better than November. That seems to mean the word is getting out."
They didn't have any runaway hits during the high season. "I don't know how it is at Literati or Nicola's," he says, "but our sales are really dispersed. We've sold a thousand books, but it's usually one or two of a title." Still, they had a few best sellers, including The Goldfinch and blogger Allie Brosh's collection of essays, Hyperbole and a Half.
"We've tweaked the bookstore here and there since opening," says Megan. "The fiction section used to be mostly face out, but now we're mostly spined out"--bookseller vocabulary meaning they've filled the shelves library style. She says that while it's true that she can read anything she wants for free, "I've gotten really good at reading like this." She mimes reading a book opened about four inches to avoid cracking the spine.
Bookbound, 1729 Plymouth (Courtyard Shops), 369-4345. Tues.-Thurs. & Sun. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mon. Bookboundbookstore.com.
Over at Literati, Hilary Gustafson says she and husband/partner, Mike, had, like the Blackshears, heard through the book grapevine that Nicola's was for sale and kept it quiet. Hilary was at the American Booksellers Association conference in Seattle when the Publishers Weekly article came out, "and it was all anyone at the conference wanted to talk about. Nicola's is a well-known, well-respected bookstore nationwide.
"We've heard rumors about who's interested," she says, but declines to name any names. "I have no doubt someone will buy the store. It's a vital part of the community, and someone will step up to the plate and take it over.
"We hope it will be someone local," she continues. "We hope they keep the staff on"--she calls them "friends." The book world in Ann Arbor is a small one, and everyone knows each other. As for Literati, "we're trying to be the best bookstore we can be. We had a great first year: we surpassed what we projected for year three, so we've come up with a whole new list of projections. We've been able to hire two full-time employees"--manager Jeanne Joesten and events coordinator John Ganiard.
From the beginning, the Gustafsons recognized that a downtown bookstore can no longer make its nut on a customer base of bibliophiles who spend hours browsing the shelves--those customers are the icing on the cake. Curating social media and planning events are serious business here, and the website has a shopping cart, allowing customers to support their local downtown bookstore in a virtual way. "Of course, lots of people also shop online then pick up items at the store," Hilary says.
Literati's sales over the holidays reflected the Gustafsons' marketing efforts. In addition to (of course) The Goldfinch, their bestsellers were books they promoted by in-store events: Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, a collection illustrated by works of Michigan artists, and Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, by local author John U. Bacon.
Literati, 124 E. Washington, 585-5567. Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Literatibookstore.com
[Originally published in March, 2014.]
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