Sunday, September 17, 2000

Joseph-Beth adds a chapter

Bookseller opening Cleveland store

By Lisa Biank Fasig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Neil Van Uum has covered a lot of pavement in the past few months. More than all his books could cover if they lay edge-to-edge beneath his wheels.

        In a way, books are paving the way to Mr. Van Uum's destination. The owner of Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood has been motoring between Cincinnati and his native Cleveland regularly for the past several months, preparing the October opening of his third Joseph-Beth store.

[photo] Neil Van Uum, owner of Joseph-Beth Booksellers, is looking forward to opening his new store in Cleveland.
(Enquirer photo)
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        The new location is an important and maybe symbolic move for Joseph-Beth, which has been a successful — but contained — merchant. Since opening its first store in Lexington in 1986, Joseph-Beth added just two Cincinnati stores, and the one at Harper's Station closed. Joseph-Beth also owns Davis-Kidd Booksellers, with three stores, in Nashville, Memphis and Jackson, Tenn.

        Now there's a new location going in Cleveland, expansion of the Norwood store's cafe and scouting for more sites. Mr. Van Uum may be ready to expand the company, but carefully.

        “It's very, very intense,” he said recently. “It's the most intense retailing that there is. Without the use of sophisticated computers, we could not do what we do here.”

        Over lunch at the Norwood store, Mr. Van Uum discussed the Cleveland market, wrestling in the book arena and some of the most popular titles sold. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

        Question: Why Cleveland?

        Answer: Cleveland's my hometown. And we're looking at probably a dozen markets, some more active than others. It's no secret we'd love to have a store in Columbus and Indianapolis, but there's nothing happening there.

        Q: Is that to say that you are open to operating as many as six stores?

        A: Sure. We're ready to grow the company. Nothing crazy, a store or two a year maybe.

        Q: That leaves you with three Joseph-Beth stores in three markets. Is that your plan, one large store per large market?

        A: Right now it is. I don't have to tell you what the world of book retailing is all about these days. And I don't want to suggest we have a great plan. We're open, still open, to the idea of opening a second store here in Cincinnati. I know why Harper's didn't work, and I know that possibly the opportunity to put a second store in here can leverage a lot of the overhead. If just the right opportunity did come along, sure, we'd consider a second store. But our next move really is to capitalize on what we do best, which is we build the best bookstores in the world.

        Q: The Harper's Station store. Why didn't it work?

        A: When we looked at what was going on in the market, we thought, “Well we ought to go get a second location because everybody else is moving into town.” (We) just picked a bad location, both from a traffic standpoint, a co-tenancy standpoint — we weren't with our kind of tenants — and when you just look at the demographics out there, the density of people, and the education of those people, and the lifestyle of those people, that's not our formula.

        Q: Is it feasible, with advertising and distribution in three far-off locations? How do you justify those expenses?

        A: There are a lot of issues associated with our strategy. Advertising, we don't have the leveraging of Barnes & Noble in this market. At the same time, it actually makes us special. There's just one Joseph-Beth. Just in terms of being a little further detached from the hub, that is probably more of an issue and probably why I have to spend so much time on the culture of the company and so much time on people development and being in the stores.

        Q: What are your annual sales?

        A: We do around $45-46 million in sales. That's where we are right now, without Cleveland.

        Q: If you knew back in 1986 what you know now, what would you have done differently?

        A: Really not much, I don't think. There's some people I can look back on and say, “I wish I didn't hire that person.” But we were very very fortunate. I was gung-ho, I was ready to knock the world off and just sort of attack it.

        Q: Ever think of getting out of the business?

        A: Really not. We haven't done much for the past three years, we sort of took things a little slow, waited to see how the Internet thing was going to play. The company, it just sort of ran. I won't say that we set the world on fire, because we didn't. But as we look today, we are pretty energized.

        Q: So might you open a second store here? There are plenty of new centers being proposed.

        A: Good companies have to grow. People don't like sitting still in a company. I think you need to grow or you die. ... With our name recognition in this market, I can see a couple places we can find ourself a store.

        Q: Are you willing to say which areas might interest you?

        A: I can't help but be intrigued by what's going on north of Harper's ... over on I-75.

        Q: What about downtown?

        A: I'm afraid it would cannibalize this store. It doesn't feel like a different market — that is our market. Out in West Chester, that's like a whole other world to me.

        Q: You carry about 130,000 titles in a store. What was the most popular?

        A: Aside from the Bible, I'm going to tell you some of the obvious. We've done very well with personalities in our given markets. Probably one of the best books we ever sold was Cawood Ledford's, the announcer for UK basketball for 40 years. That may be the best-selling book of all times for Joseph-Beth. And we sold (John) Grisham like crazy. He's probably our No. 1 author, which should be no surprise.

        Q: So, what book are you reading now?

        A: M. Scott Peck, who wrote the Road Less Traveled,wrote a book on golf. I need some self-help in the area of golf. There's an author out of Cleveland, Les Roberts, has a new book out, I'm reading that. I started reading Celestine Prophecy. I got into it at first, but then it started to drag. That's the problem with working at a bookstore (laughs).


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