McGuire’s Bookshop Atlanta


McGuire’s Bookshop Offers Atlanta Theater-in-the-Shelves

Community-oriented promotional events combine the owners’ cultural interests and book expertise

By John Bethune

Most booksellers contribute something to the cultural life of their communities, but few go about it quite as deliberately as Frank and Joslyn McGuire did in 1983 when they opened their first bookstore. After 15 years in the book industry, they had strong convictions about what McGuire’s Bookshop ought to be: as Frank McGuire explains, “not just a book outlet, but a cultural center as well.” With this principle in mind from the start, they designed their Atlanta store to double as a small theater.

Originally from New England, the McGuires moved to New Orleans in the early ‘70s, where Frank, who had been a librarian in Boston, found work at a bookstore. After three years he became a sales representative for Crown Publishers, just in time, he recalls with a laugh, “to sell The Joy of Gay Sex in Mississippi and Alabama—in a low-keyed manner, I can assure you.” In 1979, he and his wife moved to Atlanta, where he became manager of Oxford Books, one of the largest bookstores in the Southeast. By this time they knew they wanted a bookstore of their own, so Joslyn took a job in another Atlanta bookstore to gain experience.
At Oxford, Frank began to experiment with the community-oriented promotional events that would become the hallmark of his own store. In addition to autographings and similar promotions, he arranged a “Fiction Writer’s Help Day.” “I rented a tent and set it up behind the store. You had to go through the store to get in the tent. We had about a dozen panels on different aspects of creative writing, with three authors on each panel. It was a tremendous success—about a thousand people came.”

Convinced by his experience at Oxford that promotions were valuable sales tools, and confirmed in their belief that bookstores should be community centers, Frank and Joslyn didn’t hesitate when they heard of an opportunity to open their own bookstore in a storefront of 6000 square feet available for lease in a strip mall on Ponce de Leon.

Birth of Literary Row

Although its appearance and reputation had begun to improve by the early 1980s, Ponce de Leon Avenue had long been considered one of Atlanta’s seediest streets. In favor of the location, however, was the proximity of the bohemian and arts communities of Virginia-Highlands and Little Five Points, the presence of a number of theater groups in the surrounding neighborhoods, and the fact that the city’s literary watering hole, Manuel’s Tavern, was just around the corner on Highland Avenue. Moreover, Atlanta’s major universities were relatively close.

“In retrospect,” Joslyn says, “we could see that the area was crying out for a bookstore.” Within a few months of their own opening, three other bookshops opened nearby. Of the two that have survived, one specializing in science fiction and mystery, the other in literature, Frank says “they’re friends, not competition. They’ve helped establish this area as a literate one, where people who read would want to come.”

Because Frank had been a publisher’s representative himself, then a store manager, he had established friendships with many reps, who gave him what he describes as “invaluable” assistance in setting up his store. Aside from his store’s location, he believes, this aid was the most important boost the store received; says Joslyn, “We established ourselves at the start as having a strong backlist.”

They opened in November 1983 with an inventory of $82,000, hoping for gross sales between $100,000 and $200,000. At the end of the first year, their gross receipts topped $540,000. Though gratified by such success, they were somewhat unprepared for it. “It threw everything off,” Frank explains. Doubling the size of the inventory created cash-flow problems, putting them temporarily in arrears with publishers. “We had to change the initial roles of the staff, and readjust our buying patterns. We dug a bit of a hole for ourselves at first by expanding so fast.”

A Flexible Design

Joslyn, who took the lead in designing the layout of the shop, believes that “the physical impact of the place made people want to come back.” The owners wanted a store that was uncrowded and easy to move through, with a clear view from front to back. But above all, they wanted to be able to convert their shop with a minimum of labor into a small theater.

The long rectangular store is designed around a low, octagonal stage placed two-thirds of the way towards the rear entrance. Tall oak bookcases line the walls on either side, with several more free-standing fixtures in two large alcoves. The length of the store, from the front register to the rear, is filled with display tables mounted on casters. For a performance or reading, the tables are easily rolled aside and replaced by upwards of 100 folding chairs.

The McGuires sponsor a chamber music series every fall featuring accomplished local musicians. These concerts, like all events at McGuire’s, are free and open to the public, who are welcome to browse and buy books during the performances. The only logistical problem, Joslyn says, is renting a piano and moving it in and out. A pianist herself, Joslyn hopes that they will soon be able to buy the store a permanent piano.

The McGuires’ convertible theater allows them to host promotional events on a large scale. As many as four authors have read and autographed in one evening; the Atlanta Play Project has performed dramatic readings at McGuire’s; and soon the stage will be the scene of a live remote radio show. The McGuires also offer their space to local organizations, and on occasion arrange public forums. Early in 1984, when censorship of school books was a hotly debated issue in Atlanta, Frank invited panelists, pro and con, who spoke and responded to an overflow audience.

Admitting that an accountant might take a dim view of some of the events the store sponsors, Frank counters with his belief that booksellers have a special civic responsibility. An active member of Georgia’s Commission on Illiteracy, he is also deeply concerned about related problems of censorship and the decline of public education. He insists that “a bookstore is in a special position to do something about community problems.”

In keeping with its owners’ goal of “meeting all the reading needs of our customers,” McGuire’s is a general-stock, full-service bookshop with a selection of 40,000 titles. Of the store’s $220,000 inventory at cost, book merchandise constitutes 90%, of which 20% is hardcover, 35% trade paper, 25% mass market, and the rest sale books. “When we opened,” Joslyn says, “we thought we would be more of a mass market store; and I particularly expected romances to do well. But they flopped.” Mass market books now account for only 15% of sales, and their romance section has “shriveled.”

A distinguishing feature of the store is its diversified backlist, stocked with titles from publishers both large and small. “It’s our backlist that draws customers back,” Frank observes. “People come here knowing they may find a university or small press book they can’t find elsewhere.” The store also offers, set off in an appealing alcove, a large selection of children’s books, supplemented on Saturday and Sunday by a children’s story hour conducted by McGuire’s staffers.

Magazines, greeting cards, posters, calendars, stationery, and stuffed toys make up the sidelines of the store, accounting for 20% of sales. Claiming that he is a bad salesman of anything but books, Frank doesn’t expect the sidelines to displace many more books. While acknowledging that the mark-ups are attractive, he insists that “we’ll always be primarily a bookstore.”

Attention to Bargains

Instead of relying on non-book merchandise to increase their profit margins, Frank puts a special emphasis on sale books. Reflecting the store’s motto, “bargain books a specialty,” sale books make up 20% of the inventory. Rather than being casually arrayed on one or two sale tables, the books are separated by subject and displayed neatly near full-price books on the same subject. Frank buys as many hurt books as he can, since “they’re unbelievably cheap, and often not badly damaged.” He deals with about 20 sale book distributors nationwide, from major suppliers like Daedalus to smaller companies like Horizon. He adds that “the ABA is an excellent place to buy sale books, because the smaller companies often don’t have sales reps, but they do go to the ABA. I’ll see sale books there that I would never see here.”

Frank is also in charge of ordering the backlist and new fiction, and orders almost exclusively direct from publishers. “I make a point of reading every catalogue that comes in, front to back.” Although the practice is time-consuming, he often turns up gems that others miss. “When I came across Clyde Edgerton’s Raney, I knew it would do well in Atlanta. Even though it was a first book by an unknown author and the press [Algonquin] was tiny, I ordered 100 copies.” Other bookstores in town, he says, ordered only a handful. When reviewers praised the book and sales took off, “I had the books on hand when everyone else was scrambling for copies.”

Of all orders in the store, only 15% are placed through wholesalers, mostly for special orders. The store deals with 400 vendors all told. Though ordering direct on this scale is complicated, the McGuires prefer it because of the greater discounts, the more generous billing policies, and the wider choice of books. And, Frank emphasizes, “publishers have been very good to us. Their cooperation has been a major reason we’ve been able to expand as fast as we have. They were understanding in the early days when we were falling behind.”

While full of praise for the publishers, Frank is worried about the accelerating consolidation in the industry. “It makes it hard for independents to stay current with publishers because the invoices get so big.” Random House statements, he points out, include books from its several hardcover and paperback imprints, as well as distributed lines. “A Random House rep can come in and sell you all the new titles, plus a decent number of backlist titles, and suddenly you owe him $15,000, just like that.”

Similar problems arise with large distributors like Harper & Row. “Not only is the statement large, since they carry so many publishers, it’s confusing for my receiving people. Farrar, Straus distributes through Harper; the invoice says Harper, the bill says Harper, it comes from Harper, but it’s a Farrar, Straus book. Farrar doesn’t combine for discounts with Harper, you have to order from Farrar, and return them to Farrar, but my receiving people see the Harper statement, and they put ‘Harper’ on my inventory cards. It’s just another problem we could do without.”

Special Order Solutions

In the face of these complications, the McGuires have found a way to smooth out the wrinkles in their special order procedures. For a year and a half, special orders were written on single 3” X 5” cards, which as often as not were misplaced. To alleviate resulting frustrations, Joslyn and Michael Tippens, McGuire’s special-order expert, designed a new system using custom-printed quadruplicate forms.

When a special order is written, the customer keeps the original. Printed on the back of the customer’s form is an explanation of how special orders work and how long the books may take to come in. After the order has been processed, one copy is filed at the front register under the customer’s name, while a second copy is filed in the publisher’s files. If a title is ordered several times, Frank will know and can order more for the regular stock. The remaining copy goes to the receiving room, where it is filed by publisher until receipt, when the book is matched with the special order form and is sent to the front register for customer notification. The system has allowed the staff to manage more efficiently the 200 weekly special orders that go direct to publishers alone.

In contrast to their efficient special-ordering system, the McGuires’ inventory system is, as Joslyn characterizes it with a laugh, “kind of old-fashioned.” All titles, except mass market books listing for less than $5 and sale books, are recorded on cards. As each book is sold, it is logged on a legal pad at the register and later transferred to the cards. The McGuires hope to have a computer within a year or two, though Joslyn worries that “the changeover will be extremely traumatic.” Perhaps the greatest attraction of a computer for the McGuires is that it will allow them to join Booksellers Order Services. “We’re really impressed with BOS,” Frank says. “We very much hope it succeeds.”

The Main Asset: Staff

The McGuires see a computer as a useful but limited tool, not essential to their success. What is essential, Frank says, is the staff. Due in part to Atlanta’s robust economy, most bookstores in the city have difficulty retaining staff. Frank notes that one of the larger bookstores in town “had 100% turnover last year.” The McGuires have managed to minimize staff turnover by paying as well as they can, offering good benefits, and sharing the profits. Most of the 11 staffers came to the store with previous experience in bookselling, and several had worked with Frank before. Initially the McGuires intended all the staff to share the responsibilities, from receiving to buying, but as the store expanded, their roles became more specialized. Even so, the owners have made a point of spreading the menial and enjoyable tasks evenly. “We don’t want anyone to feel that they’re being singled out or don’t have important jobs.”

Because of their experience, the McGuire’s staffers proved to be a surprising source of free advertising. “Thanks to their connections,” Frank explains, “they brought a lot of customers to us in the early days.” The McGuires have built up a mailing list of 6000 customers, to whom they send a quarterly newsletter and announcements of special events and sales. The McGuires also make a point of advertising in local papers, school yearbooks, theater programs, and similar small publications. Though doubtful of the value of expensive print ads, they continue to use them, with co-op support, to announce autographings. “It probably means more to the authors,” they admit, “than to our sales.” But Joslyn adds, “it’s important for name recognition. If people see a well-known author’s name next to ours, they may not come to the autographing, but they may be impressed enough to come some other time.”

Drawing attention with discounting, however, has not paid off. One of the last bookstores in Atlanta to join the trend, McGuire’s began discounting New York Times bestsellers by 20% in October of 1985. “We don’t sell many best-sellers to begin with, and it hasn’t increased our sales much.” Discounting, in Frank’s view, “isn’t viable for the industry.” Noting “with interest” that the expansion of discounting chains has slowed recently, he is “not convinced those stores are profitable.” McGuire’s began discounting “mainly because we didn’t want to be perceived by our customers as parsimonious or greedy.”

While dissatisfied with general discounting, McGuire’s is happy with another program—one in which it is the sole bookstore participant in the area—the local “Dollar-Stretcher” discount plan. Special cards are distributed to university students in the Atlanta area, who can then present them at McGuire’s for a 15% discount on their purchases.

In the last year, the McGuires inaugurated an aggressive program of outside sales, which now account for 17% of total sales. Besides going to such obvious customers as schools, libraries and corporations, McGuire’s often sells books at meetings, benefits, charitable functions and theatrical performances. When possible, the McGuires tie into the subjects of the performances. When Atlanta’s Alliance Theater performed a play about Robert Burns, McGuire’s staff sold books related to Burns and Scotland during the intermissions.

While McGuire’s may not sell more than 10 books at such an event, Frank emphasizes the benefits. “It’s a sale we wouldn’t have made otherwise, it gets us known, and will have spinoffs down the road. It takes time and effort to go out there, but it’s worthwhile.”

For the McGuires, bringing writers and other artists together with the public is an essential part of their business. Their role, as they see it, is not simply to sell books, but to help make more people want to buy them. As Joslyn puts it, ‘the more you give to your community, the more you get back.”

Bethune is a freelance writer based in Sewanee, Tenn.