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Local book chain benefits from big-box woes -- and grows

| Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mike Paper once vowed never to open another retail bookstore. Instead, he planned to focus his business on selling publishers' overstock and returned books at wholesale and over the Internet.

Then the mighty Borders chain closed several small Pittsburgh area stores in January 2010. Mall owners eager to keep a book merchant on their store directories approached him about opening Bradley's Books stores in the vacant spaces.

The result is that Bradley's expanded from four discount bookstores to eight last year. The Blawnox-based company plans to open a ninth store in July at Southern Park Mall in Youngstown, Ohio, and Paper has ideas for a 10th location that could open by year's end.

Bradley's Books has moved from competing with book superstores for customers in the early 1990s to carving out a niche among book lovers looking for deep discounts on printed volumes.

Large bookstores might generate most of their sales from 10 percent of their stock, said Paper, vice president of the company he runs with his father, Lawrence, an attorney.

"We try to carry that 10 percent. We do try to carry what people come in looking for," he said. "The rest of the store is kind of like a treasure hunt."

Bradley's buys books for pennies on the dollar from a variety of sources. These days, Paper mainly works to amass publishers' "remainders," or leftovers, to sell in stores or through other channels. Thousands of hardcover copies of a popular author's latest work might gather dust because the book just came out in paperback, for example.

He buys "hurt" books — volumes that stores returned to publishers, often with stickers still attached. The covers may be scuffed or edges dented, but they're still in good shape. Bradley's stocks some items with Dewey decimal numbers, sold off by a business that rents books to libraries.

Best sellers on a wall at the Scott store were marked at 30 percent off on Friday. Most items at a Bradley's are at least half off suggested retail prices.

Maria Hiras visits the Scott location frequently. "They have a good selection, and they're always getting in new books," the Collier resident said. The store is convenient, prices are low and the staff is friendly, she said.

"I'm seeing some things here that I don't see in the big-box bookstores," such as several large-print books and rarer titles, said Steve Rand of Auburn, N.Y., who said he seeks out bookstores wherever he goes. Rand, whose wife was in Pittsburgh on business, planned to visit the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont that afternoon.

Children's books and cookbooks tend to be the biggest sellers, Paper said. History, gardening and local interest titles — any book about the Steelers, for instance — are popular.

Bradley's sells around 2 million books each year in its stores, at wholesale to other retailers or online, and sales total around $10 million, he said. The business has about 80 employees at the stores and at warehouses in Blawnox and Homewood.

Paper got into the book business by accident.

Not long after he graduated from Syracuse University with a communications degree, his father worked on a bankruptcy case involving six Atlantic Books stores in the region. Creditors ended up taking the books and other assets, he said, but, "We scooped up all of the fixtures from five of the six stores. Then we ended up reopening what we thought was the most profitable one."

That was the Smithfield Street location, Downtown, which reopened Sept. 1, 1993. Paper put his middle name on the business, and the first Bradley's was "extremely successful" for about a year until a Barnes & Noble opened across the street in the former Gimbels department store.

Bradley's moved to a below-street space on lower Fifth Avenue for about 10 years, until a redevelopment project targeted that building. Stores on Macy's ninth floor and in the Strip District, Station Square and Scott followed.

Bradley's book-selling method is a little unusual for the industry, said G. Logan Jordan, associate dean at the Krannert Graduate School of Management at Purdue University. But like Big Lots and, the company pays relatively little for its stock, sells it at deep discounts and makes money because it spends little on marketing compared to other retailers, he said.

"It's an interesting business model. Whether you could roll that out nationally, I don't know," Jordan said.

The glut of retail space that followed the recession helps a business like Bradley's, Jordan and retail expert C. Britt Beemer said.

"A lot of shopping centers are almost giving away stores," said Beemer, of America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C. Mall owners are cutting typical rents to keep stores occupied, he said, and bookstore customers are desirable. Many are female, with higher incomes, for example.

The Borders Express at Washington Crown Center was closed for only about two weeks last year before Bradley's opened. "When Borders left, I got a call from the Washington County Literacy Council. They were very concerned," mall General Manager Michael Joyce said. "When I told them Bradley's was moving in, they were extremely happy they were filling that void."

Along with Washington Crown Center, Bradley's moved into former Borders sites at Century III, Uniontown and Indiana malls last year.

"There will always be a place for books in people's lives, and we will continue to support bookstores at our malls -- especially a local Pittsburgh business like Bradley Books," said spokesman Les Morris of Simon Property Group, which owns Century III.

Paper said Bradley's has survived competition from bigger bookstores, online sellers such as -- and it now faces the growth of electronic books.

Digital book sales in the United States will nearly triple to $2.8 billion by 2015, a report from Forrester Research Inc. projects. Total book sales have been growing at around 0.5 percent a year on average since 2006 and are at $31.4 billion now.

Paper hasn't seen any effect yet. "People who are used to buying $5 novels are still doing that," he said. "I anticipate the e-readers will take a certain segment of the market, but we will work around it."

Additional Information:

In store

Bradley's Books offers these locations:

• Macy's ninth floor, Downtown

• Station Square, South Side

• Greentree Road Shopping Center, Scott

• Penn Avenue, Strip District

• Century III Mall, West Mifflin

• Washington Crown Center, North Franklin

• Uniontown Mall

• Indiana Mall

• Southern Park Mall, Youngstown, Ohio (opening in July)

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