Listen to Lansing Online News on the air tonight on WLNZ 89.7 FM when Bonnie and I talk with Emily Galer, promotional manager of Schulers Okemos about the book business. Bill and Cecile Fehsenfeld have seen it all when it comes to the birth of the modern bookstore. You could say they were there for its conception, its first clumsy steps, its ugly teenage years and even its more turbulent middle age.
Their baby, Schuler Books & Music, is celebrating its 30th anniversary as the state’s largest independent regional bookstore. With five stores, three in Grand Rapids, the home base, and two in the Lansing area, Schuler is a mini-chain and singular in its success and longevity.
Their relationship with a bookstore seemed predestined when, in 1973, Bill and Cecile met while working at Ulrich’s bookstore in Ann Arbor. It was a heady time for the bookstore industry and later Bill went to work for Tom and Louis Borders, the founders of what would become the chain Borders which at one time would have more than 1,300 stores including more than 250 superstores before being liquidated in 2011.
It wasn’t long before Bill and Cecile got the itch and while visiting family in Bill’s hometown of Grand Rapids in 1981 they stopped at a Jo-Ann Fabric store thinking it would be the perfect location for what they conceived as a modern bookstore.
Even then, not lacking for hubris, they asked the manager if the store had plans to move. They were told no but left their contact information anyway. A year later, in late January, the call came: Jo-Ann was closing and was wondering if they were still interested.
In what would become a hallmark of their ownership style they moved quickly and buoyed by family capital and personal savings by September they were ready to open what was to become known as a book superstore.
“We were young and foolish,” said Cecile.
Maybe not so foolish. Bill’s experience at Borders led him to believe that the bookstore industry was about to change from the small cramped often dusty and snobbish shops to a more all-encompassing full-featured store. The original Borders on State Street in Ann Arbor occupied only 800 square feet.
Cecile recalls the one bookstore in her hometown of Augusta Georgia as “small and tiny.”
Bill and Cecile both remember going into bookstores in the old days looking for a book and if the store didn’t have it you would order it and wait weeks for it to arrive.
The Fehsenfelds still remember the first book they sold when they opened in late September of 1982.
“It was a book on ballooning,” Bill said. What they disagree on is the actual date they opened with Bill leaning to September 24 and Cecile to September 23.
Since that first sale in 1982, Schuler has not only grown the number of locations, but also the size of its stores. The 7,000 square feet original store on 28th Street in Grand Rapids, which they saw as large format, has moved to a much-much larger quarters. As an example, the Okemos Mall location which opened in 2001 is 24,000 square feet.
Schuler originally opened its first Lansing location in 1990 as a free standing store of about 10,000 square feet in the parking lot of Meijer across the street from their current location in Meridian Mall.
Moving to the mall was part of a strategic decision to keep a Barnes & Noble big-box store from moving directly across from them. And when in 2002, Eastwood Towne Center offered a new market, Schuler would open the second Lansing location.
Bill’s previous relationship with Borders brothers would also turn out to be a plus.
Schuler was one of the first bookstores in the country to adopt the Borders inventory management system. East Lansing’s Jocundry’s bookstore led by another Border’s alumnus also used what was the ground breaking system to predict book sales and keep track of books in the store.
In addition, Borders for a myriad of reasons did not open stores in Grand Rapids or the Lansing area. Some say it was the Borders brothers’ decision, a gentleman’s agreement, not to compete with their former employee. (A CEO of Borders proudly confirmed that relationship to me in a mid-1990s conversation.)
Bill Fehsenfeld said it is more likely that Borders did not want to cannibalize its own fledgling attempts at selling books wholesale to other bookstores.
Whatever the reason it gave Schuler breathing room and the energy to keep up with the massive changes that were to come their way.
“This has been a very difficult business,” Bill said.
That may be one of the more classic understatements. Yet to come were the really big box stores (in 1983 Borders had only a dozen big box stores,) Amazon, market consolidation and perhaps the most formidable opponent yet, e-books.
Schuler Books & Music had already seen what could happen when DVD and CD sales plummeted with the advent of file sharing, and national competitors like Netflix (which has already seen its heyday.)
“Music and movies was a pretty good business to be in,” Bill said.
One way they adapted to sales’ declines was to use the space formerly taken up by music and DVD bins to sell used books, which the Fehsenfelds say is a portion of their business which continues to grow.
Schuler also was among the first to install cafés in their bookstores when the original one, in Okemos, opened in 1995. Now ubiquitous, at the time, cafes with liquid and sticky food were a no-no for a bookstore owner. In response to e-books Schuler began offering e-book purchases through the store and also began a self-publishing program in the Grand Rapids store. The downtown Grand Rapids location also sells beer and wine in the café.
The stores have also been offering more unusual gift items and fair trade items which Cecile says “drives traffic.”
The owners say a major portion of their success is due to the booksellers who work for them; citing numerous employees who have worked for them more than 20 years.
Cecile Fehsenfeld feels this is a very competitive advantage for independent bookstores and cites other strong independent Michigan bookstores such as Mclean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey and Nicola’s in Ann Arbor as examples of stores with great sales staff.
“We have a different group of people than the national chains-they like to talk to customers about books.”
She said a recent visit to Mclean & Eakin felt like “going home.”
Cecile who has spent numerous years at the national level working on anti-censorship and freedom of expression efforts said that bookstores in many ways have become the “public square” where ideas are exchanged.
“If independent bookstores don’t survive we will be more culturally bereft as a consequence. I hope the public will understand that.”
Bill Fehsenfeld said that there are number of trends pointing to survival.
“The experience between e-books and paper is different. People buying e-books are still buying paper. Books (paper) are not going away,” he said.
When it comes to successorship for Schuler, Cecile said, “We have been giving that a lot of thought. Our kids have shown an interest and they never did before.”
The bottom line: would they do it over again? “Yes” and “yes” both Fehsenfelds say in unison.
Both Schuler Books locations in the Lansing area have planned a full month of events to celebrate the anniversary and schedules are on www.schulerbooks.com