Independent bookstore in Bryn Mawr sees a niche

Cathy Fiebach with her personal favorite, "Gone With the Wind," at Main Point Books.
Cathy Fiebach with her personal favorite, "Gone With the Wind," at Main Point Books. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 29, 2013

Cathy Fiebach doesn't believe in chasing lost causes.

She's an experienced, 46-year-old businesswoman who pays attention to market forces and opportunities. And she's about to open a type of business some think dead:

An independent bookstore.

Main Point Books, its name harking back to the famed Main Point coffeehouse that helped launch musicians like Bruce Springsteen, and to the concept that books have a central idea, opens Tuesday in Bryn Mawr.

"A few people have hugged me," Fiebach said as she and a friend stocked shelves. "My parents thought I was a little insane."

But only a little. Independents are staging something of a comeback, bolstered by the death of big chain stores and the growing national inclination to buy locally.

Fiebach seeks to fill the book gap created by the demise of three nearby Borders and Barnes & Noble stores in an area crammed with colleges and rife with educated readers. Her store will sell e-books. And if she doesn't have a particular title in stock, she'll order it.

"I can't compete on price - it has to be other things," Fiebach said.

And primarily on what buyers say they most want from their independent: An informed opinion on a carefully curated inventory, and a willingness to make the store a haven for the life of the mind.

Fiebach reads lots of literary fiction and historical fiction, though she's also open for a debate on Moby Dick. Her all-time favorite book? Gone With the Wind. Three hardback copies squat on a store shelf.

Fiebach and her husband, Jon, are raising two sons, Josh, 15, and Matthew, 13, in Wynnewood. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Wharton School of business, and worked in brand management at Unilever, the global firm whose holdings include Lipton tea, Dove soap, and Hellmann's mayonnaise.

She's entering a business battle zone. For two decades, independents have gotten rocked, first by the rise of chains that offered deep discounts on best-sellers, then by technologies that moved buyers toward tablets and e-readers. Last year, the dollar sales of adult e-books surpassed those of adult hardcover books for the first time. Today on-line giant Amazon.com offers enormous stock, to-your-door service, and discounts on practically every book, real or virtual.

But people who know and love independent bookstores say their obituary has been written too soon.

Despite its effective search engine, Amazon can't offer the pleasure of the unexpected find. Or personal service. It doesn't keep dollars in local communities.

The chains learned the hard way that bigger isn't better. Barnes & Noble has announced plans to close up to a third of its retail stores, shrinking from 689 to between 450 and 500. Borders is gone, having declared bankruptcy and liquidated its 500 stores in 2011.

"The independent store is making a resurgence," said Lynn Rosen, editorial director of Book Business magazine.

The market conditions for success vary from place to place, but one constant is a strong tie to the local community. Store owners must possess intimate knowledge of their books, said Rosen, creator of Open Book, which runs classes, workshops, and a pop-up bookstore at the Creekside Co-op. When a customer asks for Hemingway, she said, the answer had better not be, "How do you spell that?"

Membership in the American Booksellers Association, which represents independents, is less than half of its historic high of about 4,000. But during the last three years, membership has grown modestly, to about 1,600 companies in 2,000 locations, according to CEO Oren Teicher. Independents sold 8 percent more books in 2012 than in 2011, he said.

The democratization of technology has offered small sellers access to quality payroll and inventory systems, and the ability to reach customers at little or no cost on the Internet.

"Main Point Books - that model has happened all over the country," Teicher said. "It isn't an easy road she's about to go down, because it's a fiercely, fiercely competitive business. But what independent bookstores do that's unique is they know about the books on their shelves. That knowledge and passion about books creates an environment that customers are going to want to shop in."

Fiebach aims to create just that kind of place. People in the neighborhood kept saying they wanted a general bookstore, absent since the Borders stores in Rosemont and Wynnewood killed the Barnes & Noble in Bryn Mawr - then went under themselves.

Fiebach thinks she's chosen the right spot for Main Point Books: The space that used to house Medley Music, at 1041 W. Lancaster Ave. There's sufficient parking and steady foot traffic.

And a cupcake shop next door.

"If any place can support a bookstore," she said, "it's here."


More on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/#!/MainPointBooks?fref=ts

Contact Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8205, jgammage@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JeffGammage.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|