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I was struggling for a story for this Friday’s deadline. If I miss a Friday, I’m concerned I won’t go back. I work much better if I have a gun to my head. I didn’t want to cut and paste another one from the old pile of “Bookends.” I have a number of stories started on “Pages” but so far they’ve “failed to launch” for whatever reasons. There are some that are brewing but are so big I need to get a handle on them. I started to do “Hypermoderns” but I’m waiting for some history and advice from experts. So maybe that will be next week.
Then I came across a love letter and the following story evolved.
The letter above is soiled because it lay on the floor in my office in the back of the Frederick store for five and a half years. It got stepped on a number of times. We finally got around to tearing the office walls out and opening that space for retail last year about this time. Actually, “I” finally got around to clearing it out. Over the last dozen years several managers of that store had appealed to me open that space up for more shelves and cases of books for customers. I pretty much stopped using it in 2004 when I moved my HQ to the warehouse. It was clear then the internet and its mail order sales were where Wonder Book’s future lay. I was no longer needed in the brick-and-mortar bookstore.
For many years, I exited that office through my “bolt hole”—the back door that opened onto the service road. There was only one space to park back there—next to the dumpster. I could come and go as I pleased. No one would know if I was there or not. When the hour came I could escape the building, the bookstore, my duty and not have any awkward meetings with employees or customers on the way out. There was some sentiment involved. I’d spend a good chunk of my life in that room. There was also a lot of procrastination. Clearing out that room was a time trip. There were a lot of great books I’d set aside in there and a lot of bookstore memorabilia and a lot of stuff I didn’t know what to do with but didn’t feel I could throw away. We moved into that 11,000 square foot space in 1990. The previous location was about a half mile west on Rt 40 (a.k.a. West Patrick Street; a.k.a. The Old Pike; a.k.a. The National Road.)
We sold a LOT of Thomas Searight’s The Old Pike! It used to go in a matter of days at the Frederick, Maryland store for $35—good money then. Now, searching under the editors’ names I find several online at $5. At some point in the early 1990s I acquired several boxes of 20 “new” copies of that 1971 edition. They were like boxes of instant cash. A Gold Mine!
On slow days—often back then—I would sometimes stare out the window and imagine Conestoga wagons rumbling by 150 years earlier. It was evocative to think of the pioneer stories that rolled past that spot.
We moved into that second location in 1983 when I bought out my mentor and silent partner Carl Sickles—owner of Book Alcove. The first location was also on West Patrick. In the summer of 1980 Carl and I each put $1000 in as the “first and last months’ rent”* and a load of 6″ and 8” #2 pine boards. I’d only started working for him a few months before. I fell in love with the used book business and insisted I was ready to open a store of my own. (I wasn’t.)
“Carl, if you want to help me that would be great. Otherwise, I’ll do it on my own.”
Fortunately, Carl was a very generous soul and maybe someone was watching over me. He agreed to partner. Otherwise, I’d likely be a retired…I don’t know… by now.
Most of the opening stock came from the Clifton Book Company near Shepherdstown, West Virginia. That was on a sprawling farm and there were numerous buildings—barns, quonset huts, out buildings—all full of books. That was amazing early adventure in books. Imagine walking through a big old barn a good 4 feet off the floors because so many books were spilled onto it that the space was literally a sea of books. I’ve recorded that story elsewhere, and sometime I’ll dust it off and tell the tale of the magical filthy dirty dusty summer.
Ah, there she is again. My book muse. I suppose you had something to do with that?
“That’s neither here nor there, lad. Yer title says something about going out of business and so far I can’t see at all where this is all going.”
Well, I had to go INTO business first. I’m laying the groundwork.
“Am I detectin’ a bit of attitude? If I’m not needed any longer…”
No! Never. I mean—please don’t go.
“Yer going on about love letters and horses and wagons and I’m not sure where else yer goin’ with this. Get back on track. I’m interested in seein’ where this headed. Ta!”
Well, just a leetle more background…
So, into 1980 Carl and I leased 1200 square feet at 1411 West Patrick.
In 1983 the neighboring shop, Dinettes Unlimited, wanted to expand into my space and offered to pay for me to move. We moved a quarter mile west to 1507 West Patrick and 2500 square feet. It was then I came up with the notion of renting videos. Carl wasn’t interested in being part of that and things were growing very quickly. He agreed to let me buy him out for $14,000. At 1507 things went well—fast. I leased the empty spot on the west side—1500 square feet. We knocked two doorways into the wall and put up bookcases in there. A year or so later we took the empty storefront to the east—another 1500 square feet. We knocked two doorways into that as well. So, we had 5500 sqft—but the space was really broken up and jumbled.
Things were going great. We were renting VHS (and Beta—for a while) tapes. We were selling books. We had comic and LP sections. And the books, where my real passion was, were pouring in filling every bookcase I built.
Then Erol’s came along.
(Cue the doom and gloom music.)
Up until then we’d been competing with maybe a dozen local mom-and-pop video stores in the Frederick area. I think all of them carried X-Rated tapes as a big part of their revenue generators. We went in a different direction. I started buying VHS tapes that were not big hits. Back then VHS tapes were hugely expensive. New releases of hit movies would often cost us $70-80—wholesale. That was why people rented rather than bought tapes. I brought in opera, foreign, silent movies, obscure writers and directors. I think the fact that we didn’t carry adult product brought some people in. Some of those stores could be a bit creepy with guys slipping in and out of the adult rooms or pushing through the curtained doorway in to the “back.” “18 & Up Only.” It was a business decision. I felt it would detract from the family atmosphere and the quality books, comics… Also, I just felt that if I ever had kids I didn’t want to think that was how dad made his living.
“Erol’s is coming. Do you think they will hurt you?”
“Erol’s is coming. They’ll put you and the other video shops out of business.”
They opened on West Patrick St about a mile east of us. There certainly was some impact. A number of the local mom-and-pop shops shuttered in a year or two.
Erol’s WAS a wake up call. We cleaned up our act. Did some internal upgrades to our appearance. We expanded our hours to match theirs as closely as possible. And I looked for video niches Erol’s wasn’t offering. That began the philosophy to work around much bigger and hugely financed competition by doing what they don’t, won’t or couldn’t.
I also began thinking that to compete I would need a bigger, better location… The notion that we needed to grow or otherwise we would stagnate has compelled us to try to do something big or new or different every year.
In 1990 another great friend and mentor, Maribeth Visco, got me a deal at 1306 West Patrick St. It was a deal that I “couldn’t refuse.” This shopping center had a Toy”R”Us and a Chi-Chi’s and a Ruby Tuesday on pad sites. The landlord had had trouble leasing the spot and Maribeth got me a full year of free rent—plus the landlord finished the space to my specifications.
I was in the big time!
(Maybe there was some divine intervention as well?)
I just hoped that when the yearlong free ride was over, I could actually pay for the 11,000 sq ft!
Erol’s was the 400-pound gorilla compared to us. To compete and not be crushed, we had to be nimble. Plus, our diversity with books, movies, LPs, CDs and comics made it so our store had more to see than just VHS tapes. Then our video reps started telling us about this behemoth coming out of Texas. They were opening stores right next to Erol’s wherever they could all over the country.
They were a prime example of predatory retailing. They had huge financial backing. As they grew to market dominance, they made special deals with studios. Deals we independents couldn’t get. When they moved into town, they did all they could to crush the other chains and the mom-and-pop stores.
It was sometime around then that Blockbuster opened on West Patrick St about a half mile east of our new location.
“Do you think Wonder Book will keep carrying movies?”
“Blockbuster is coming. I bet they’ll put you out of business in a year.”
Well, in 1990 Erol’s capitulated and sold out their remaining stores to Blockbuster. The 800-pound gorilla crushed the 400-pound gorilla. We were doing just fine.
“Chuck, they’re open til midnight 365 days a year!”
Well, we couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that to my employees or myself. But we did extend our hours to 10-10—7 days a week. Closed only Christmas and Thanksgiving. (We asked for volunteers to rotate covering other holidays.)
When they started carrying DVDs—we did too. Blu-Rays…
To compete and because we had so many extra books, we opened a second book and video store in Frederick and then one in Hagerstown, Maryland.
Redbox kiosks started appearing—often in McDonald’s. Then Netflix. Finally, online streaming and on-demand cable rentals became more viable. They certainly took their toll. As did online sales of used and discounted DVDs.
“People won’t rent movies any more. Do you think you can support this space with used book sales?”
The decline in rentals had some impact. We closed the second Frederick location in 2006. It’s revenue had primarily been video driven. Frederick still had one out-of-scale bookshop—the West Patrick Street store. That store would be a large store in a big city let alone a mid-size town. The town didn’t need two big used bookstores.
In 2008 we bought the original Book Alcove in Gaithersburg, Maryland as it was in process of closing. That location was where I began my book career—asking Carl for a “summer job” in 1980. I couldn’t abide the idea of it going away if there was anything I could do about it. I made an offer on the stock and fixtures to Carl’s son. So we still have 3 brick-and-mortar locations.
That’s pretty much the video story. Except that in about 2008 Blockbuster closed in Frederick. In 2010 the company filed for bankruptcy and all the Blockbuster Video stores went away. It is 2018 and Wonder Book & Video is still renting and selling DVDs and Blu-Rays in Frederick and Hagerstown. That part of the business has declined and continues to, but it is still viable and a service a lot of people in Frederick and Hagerstown appreciate.
Now let’s talk about books. New books and remainder—or bargain—books.
When we opened in 1980 Frederick had a Walden Books and a B. Dalton in the shopping malls. They were tiny little stores with limited inventories. Slim pickings. There were always rumors that Crown would come to Frederick.
“Are you worried?”
“If Crown comes, they will close you up.”
It wasn’t until sometime in the mid 90s that Borders and then Barnes and Noble opened huge stores in Frederick.
“What are you going to do?”
“They have a coffee bar. They let people hang out there and read books and magazines.”
Funny story…well, not so funny at the time. I decided Wonder Book should have a coffee bar. I went to a trade show and bought a brand new stainless steel completely self-contained coffee cart. It was a big ole thing. It was on wheels—the kind of thing you see freestanding on city streets or in shopping centers. It was also $10,000! A fortune at the time. We tore out an office to give it space. It had a fridge. Bottled water reservoir. What could go wrong? We could compete with them!
“Umm, Chuck, a guy from the city came by. He said it is in violation of code. You need to have a 3-compartment sink to sell coffee.”
“It’s completely self-contained. What do we need a sink for?”
We would have to remove a lot of bookcases and tear up a big section of the floor to install plumbing. It would have cost a fortune. You can’t fight city hall. We sold the unused thing for $3500.
Sometimes one should look before they take a leap of faith.
But with the books and movies and comics and music we just pivoted. We stocked things they couldn’t or wouldn’t carry. We did stop offering the NY Times bestsellers and soon stopped stocking any full priced books—even local history. B&N had a large local author section, and we soon referred all local authors (and customers to them.) We couldn’t compete and it was really no sacrifice. Actually a lot of them were problematic to deal with and most of the books didn’t sell very well.
Well, Borders shuttered in 2011. Their last profitable year was 2005. They were slammed by the 8000-pound gorilla. Internet book sales…and Amazon.
B&N is still here in the mall here, but they’ve pivoted as well. You see a lot of toys and gifty stuff in there now. They also stock new vinyl LPs and turntables.
We had a vast comic book section. We even had weekly subscriptions. On Friday mornings, Clark Kline (Wonder Book’s tech guru and a visionary in all the creative changes we’ve made since 1989) would drive to Geppi’s in Baltimore to pick up that week’s releases. A good part of the day would be spent sorting issues people preordered into bins alphabetically under the subscribers’ names.
One day a good customer told me: ” Chuck, I’m opening a comic shop. I’m sorry to do this to you…”
Dan Webb was opening Brainstorm Comics in a shopping center on the other side of town. He was built like a superhero then. A chiseled body and chiseled facial features.
I wasn’t upset…too much. Go for it.
It turned out ok. We coexisted just fine for many years. Then the market for single-issue comics collapsed at a certain point in the mid 90s. The single-issue comic market peaked in 1992 with The Death of Superman issue. People lined up to buy it. Some bought 10, 20 copies if they could find them. Crazy speculation. But later video games and action movies on DVD were far more intriguing for the (mostly) young men who had been weekly readers of comic books. We abandoned that market and converted the space into more glass cases for collectible and rare books in the main Frederick store.
We continue to this day carrying a lot of graphic novels and some of the cheaper single-issue comics. We also continue to sell used and rare and bargain priced new graphic novels on www.wonderbook.com. We have a huge backlog of old and sometimes rare comics that we hope someday to figure out how to market either in the stores or online.
Dan sold Brainstorm a few years ago. It moved downtown and operates a nice boutique shop in a one of the quaint Georgian storefronts.
Dan has been coming back in for years now buying used books. Friends again.
What about used and collectible books where the true foundation and heart of Wonder Book has always been?
Well, that got a little personal a few times.
Up in Hagerstown, Jack Staley opened Barnwood Books in the mid 80s. The store was in an aged storefront in downtown Hagerstown. Street parking only and not a pleasant area especially at night.
Then he opened Barnwood North in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and Barnwood South in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Back then I would often visit other bookstores looking for things I could buy that I had customers for. Jack had a little shelf of collectible books he kept out of reach behind the counter. The rest of the stock was just general stock—and never very good. How could he have 3 stores?
One day I was in his shop poking around, and he sidled up next to me.
“Chuck, I just wanted to warn you. I’m opening a store in Frederick. I hate to put you out of business, but business is business. ”
It turned out he had relatives running the other two stores. There must have been another sibling or niece in line to run another location.
I decided to open a Hagerstown store in 1995—not out of spite—it was just a natural direction to head in. It did very well. We opened in a bright shopping center with a Kmart and a Central Tractor and chain restaurants on pad sites in the vast parking lot. Our store was 10,000 square feet and was a (generally) clean well-lit place. Open 10-10. 7 days a week. We still have a Hagerstown store. We moved it to an abandoned CVS in 2005.
Barnwood North and South closed in the early 2000s—likely victims of the internet as so many used book stores were. Jack passed away in 2010. His widow sold the store to a young guy who apparently didn’t study the store’s financials. In May 2011 he asked me to come clear the 100,000 or so books and bookcases “by the end of the month.”
Jack never opened the Barnwood East in Frederick.
Sometime in the mid 90s a sweet young couple were shopping in the Frederick store. They asked if I was the owner.
“We wanted to meet you. We’re from Richmond. We’ve fallen love with Frederick and your store. We’re planning to move here. We’re going to open a used bookstore like yours. We just wanted to let you know.”
I guess those were stressful times. I had two very young children. I’d invested a lot to stay in business and deal with all the various competitors. There was a bit of a pregnant pause and then I spoke.
“I’ll do everything I can to put you out of business.”
Their eyes widened, and they turned and quickly exited. I never saw them again.
I’m rarely blunt. Must’ve been a bad day. I felt a little bad.
But “business is business.” I had mouths to feed. I had employees to keep employed. I’d invested a LOT of years in building the company. I didn’t think Frederick was big enough for two used bookstores.
Sometime in the mid to late 90s Chris (not his real name) came to work for Wonder Book. He was a nice guy. Smart. Good work ethic. After we started selling books on the internet he got involved in some of the technical and data entry aspects of that. He got pretty good at cataloging and researching book values. He started buying books on his own at yard sales and flea markets. He sold some to me and then began selling some online himself.
I had no problem with that until one day he approached me with a book.
“I found a copy of this ‘on the web’ for $300. How much will you give me for it?”
I wasn’t interested in it. There was niggling feeling back in those early “Wild West” days of online bookselling that just because someone posted a book for a lot of money didn’t mean that it was worth a lot of money or would ever sell at all.
He was a bit resentful. He started asking if I would mind if he opened his own bookstore in town.
“Go for it. You’ve been here a couple years. You see how easy it is.”
He never got beyond the talking stage. He came to work at the warehouse. He then got doomy and gloomy often.
“This isn’t going to last you know. You’ll run out of books.”
“The big internet booksellers will put you out of business.”
He left. A few years later, he asked and was invited back to work in the warehouse and then manage the Hagerstown store. Left again after a couple years. He asked to come back again about 6 years ago.
“Probably not a good idea.”
A few months ago Terry—who’s been here since 1989—told me: “Don’t be surprised if Chris doesn’t get in touch with you about a job.”
I don’t know what I would say to him. Never say never. I would likely walk him around and with a twinkle in my eye ask:
“Do you think we will run out of books soon?” as we survey the thousands of unopened boxes of books waiting to be processed.
The internet… it was Clark and my brother Tony and a few other visionaries who finally convinced me to start selling books on the computer in 1997. If Wonder Book hadn’t gone online, then we’d likely be out of business like most of the bookstores around the country. In the early 2000s we started getting calls from regional bookstores asking if we’d come and buy their books and bookcases and all the accouterments involved in a book operation.
Ernest, a longtime book manager, kept an old WABA* directory on his worktable.
Whenever we’d get called to close up another shop, he put a check mark next to its name the brochure. I didn’t enjoy doing those missions at all. In some ways it was like we were running a hospice. No one else would take the dying bookstores’ contents.
Perhaps the greatest threat to us and all the remaining bookstores up until now was a frightening invention: the dreaded E-Reader. They first appeared in the late 90s. They weren’t popular. But when the Kindle was introduced in 2007 with all the power of Amazon behind it…uh oh!
“Chuck, in 10 years, they won’t be printing books on paper any longer.”
A lot of bookseller colleagues were sure books were obsolete. Only rare and collectible books would have a secondary market. Publishers would phase out releasing bound books. Every book in the world would be available on the diabolical little plastic slabs.
Project Gutenberg was started in the 1970s with a goal to digitize reference books. In 2004 Google decided to digitize EVERY book in existence, so they could be accessed online. Stories abounded of thousands of books being dismembered so their pages could be scanned.
Now Google was going to put us all out of business?!
By 2010 the consensus among many, perhaps most, booksellers was to get out while the getting was good. Sell off whatever they could before their books were obsolete.
More stores closed. We got more calls.
Was I worried? Just a bit terrified…for a while.
Then I looked around me. I looked at the colors and shapes and sizes surrounding me in the stores and in the warehouse, at home and in my office. Books are just so damned beautiful.
I looked at my hands. They like to touch things. To hold things. Books are sensual. They appeal to the eyes. They often have a wonderful scent. Humans are tactile creatures. Paper feels good. Books covers—often cloth, sometimes leather—feel good.
It was then I realized the Kindle was just another delivery system. A gizmo. A toy. It served a function certainly. It would have its niche.
Would I want to read Dr Seuss to my children on an electronic screen? Could you experience art or photography on a small device with the same pleasure and detail as a coffee table size book could give you?
Books are three-dimensional. You can tell where you’ve been and where you’re going. Reading books is often a journey. You start at the beginning and travel to its end. Reading on a screen is two-dimensional. You’re essentially lost in space. Pages don’t mean anything. Am I reading a big book or a small one? Where am I in this “electronic” book?
I debated vigorously with the doomsters.: “The printed book is NOT doomed—at least not any time soon.”
“You’re just whistling past the graveyard. My daughter is 20 years old, and says she will never pick up a book again.”
When I traveled, I looked around me. How many people were reading electronic slabs on the plane? On the beach? In Starbucks?—well, maybe not there. It seems a different group hangs out there.
My instincts were right. So far. The ebook has been in steady decline since its peak in 2011. Publishers have said it will level out at 30% of the market. Now they are thinking maybe less.
We survived the e-reader demon!!! Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We are constantly looking for new markets and innovations to do things faster, cheaper, better with all the books pouring in here nowadays.
I believe in the “book”—at least for the foreseeable future.
Who is out to get this Wonder Book business next?
Amazon? Right now we are friends and partners. Through them we “recycle” thousands of books every week. I hope we stay friends. For a very long time.
But I dunno. I’ll keep looking over my shoulder. I’ll try to peak around the corner to see what is coming this way.
And the “love letter”… I don’t think I ever met the guy. I wish he’d introduced himself sometime—but then I’m not in the store very often anymore. It was heartening. As have been all the people over the years that have said: “I love your store.” We get enough complaints too. I remember getting an anonymous letter. It was written in a woman’s hand.
“Mr. Roberts you are a fraud! …”
She went on about me not paying enough for her books and what we did with the books we get. That was a slap in the face. Was I a fraud? I was doing what I could to survive while stores all around the country were going dark.
We pay what the market makes us pay. I didn’t twist her arm to sell me her books.
Business is business.
We buy thousands of boxes of books every week. Only a very tiny percentage of those get to the retail store. A larger percentage go online. Many get rejected before even getting to data entry for many reasons. The computer rejects a great many books as well. Often we already have too many copies of a book online already.
What do we do with these lemons?
Some go to our Books By the Foot division.
Last week we shipped out a full tractor-trailer of kid’s books to a guy down south. 40 Gaylords on pallets double stacked. There were probably 60,000-75,000 of them. He only paid pennies a piece for them. But I was glad to see them go—to get in kids’ hands somewhere somehow.
We call it #bookrescue on our social media accounts.
We love books here. It is a passion and a mission to do something positive with every book that comes in whether it is a “penny” book or a valuable collectible.
In some ways, I guess you could say we are in the “love” business.
Many years ago, a customer gave me a short poem she wrote about the store. I’ve had it pinned above my desk in all the offices I’ve moved in and out of since the 1980s. I think it’s a fitting way to end this story.
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