Chester County Book & Music is closing its doors

Owner Kathy Simoneaux says she's considering options including a smaller location just for books. She and her husband opened the store in 1982, but it now faces stiff competition from e-books and online sales.
Owner Kathy Simoneaux says she's considering options including a smaller location just for books. She and her husband opened the store in 1982, but it now faces stiff competition from e-books and online sales. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 06, 2012

In 1982, Kathy and Bob Simoneaux were both book lovers working in New York when they decided to take the plunge and buy their own bookstore.

They saw an ad in Publisher's Weekly for a small shop in West Chester.

"We fell in love with the area," said Kathy Simoneaux, 60, who was working at Barnes & Noble at the time. Her husband, who died in 2010, was a sales manager for a paperback publisher when they met.

For the next three decades, Chester County Book & Music Co. found success competing in ways Amazon and the big chains can't, by offering personal service, a carefully chosen roster of books and music, and cozy author events.

To be fair, not every book signing was particularly intimate.

Former President Jimmy Carter, for instance, drew a crowd of 2,500 people in the '90s. Then there was the mob who complained because they couldn't get close enough to Dr. Phil.

Not bad for a local bookseller.

As the store's popularity grew, so did its size, from 1,200 square feet to its current 30,000 square feet in the West Goshen Shopping Center. Beyond more books, there is also a full-service New Orleans-style restaurant.

But now, Simoneaux faces what is almost inevitable for independent booksellers under pressure from e-readers and online sales. Chester County Book & Music, one of the largest independent booksellers in the region, is closing.

Exactly when is unclear. After Simoneaux told the shopping center management she couldn't afford to stay after her lease expired last January, they offered reduced month-to-month rent while they negotiated with a fitness center to take over the space.

"We'll get 60 days' notice," she said.

News of the closing has startled the store's devoted customers, who started Facebook groups and have e-mailed Simoneaux with ideas for how to save the business.

She has some notions of her own, including a smaller location just for books.

Music sales "have taken a huge drop," she said at a table in the Magnolia restaurant, her New Orleans- born husband's idea.

The woes of bricks-and-mortar bookstores are not new. For a decade they have been closing regularly, whether small mom-and-pop operations or big chains such as Borders. The American Booksellers Association has about 1,900 independent bookstores as members, down from about 2,400 in 2002.

Business at Simoneaux's shop has eroded steadily since its peak about 12 years ago. Sales of CDs have plummeted 80 percent, and book-buying is down about half.

Though the store is made up of three large rooms, including a warehouse-size addition on the back, Simoneaux said she can't afford to stock the breadth of inventory she once did. In the past, it didn't matter if an obscure book sat on shelves for a few years.

Yet customers say the vast selection is one of the reasons they prefer the store to other sellers. For instance, on Thursday Vicki Worrall of Newtown Square called to see if they had a 50-year-old book, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. They did.

"Nobody has it," Worrall said, paying for the slim volume. "I could have ordered it from Amazon, but I'm a visual person."

Mary Elizabeth Jones, who teaches at nearby Immaculata College, appreciates getting book suggestions from the well-read clerks.

"They know you, they know what you like to read, and they make recommendations," said Jones, known as M.E. to the staff and a mystery and thriller fan who stops in three to four times a week.

The customers are the type of well-heeled, older shoppers who feel a responsibility to keep independent book sellers alive, paying more for the privilege of browsing bulging shelves and talking to clerks who are voracious readers or former teachers and literature majors.

Kathy Simoneaux was an English student but dropped out of college in Virginia to help support her widowed-mother. In the 1970s she visited a girlfriend in New York and decided to stay.

"It was the height of disco fever. Was it fun," she recalled.

She got a job as a clerk at Barnes & Noble, then a regional bookseller, at the flagship store on Fifth Avenue, then became a buyer and met her husband.

After buying Margaret Alburn Bookseller in 1982, they soon decided it wasn't big enough and moved to a larger shop in the West Goshen center in 1985. Then they outgrew that, so they moved to a bigger spot in the center. But even that had no space for the restaurant Bob Simoneaux always wanted to open, so they built a huge addition in back.

Now it is too big and the rent too high to turn a profit. Most successful independent bookstores are less than 10,000 square feet, with rents that reflect the small profit margin on books.

Simoneaux has looked at a few smaller locations but is not convinced she can make a go of it."If the rent is right and you have the right payroll and the right mix of inventory -," she said, as if trying to convince herself.

What she'll miss, she said, is the people - customers, employees, even the sales reps. "It's a business that attracts the kindest and most interesting people."

Her 38 employees, many of whom have worked at the store for decades, are hoping for the best and keeping a sense of humor.

John Gramlich, a 67-year-old former musician who played in a country band and has worked at the store for 21 years, joked about opportunities for people his age.

Asked what he'd do if the store goes out of business, Tim Shipp, 61, a 25-year-veteran, looked on the bright side: He'd get to be home on holidays and weekends, a rarity in retail, he said.

"He's going to help me find a job," Gramlich said. "That will be a full-time job."

Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123, or @kmboccella on Twitter.

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