Neil Van Uum
W hen Neil Van Uum was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he rode his bike to the library or browsed its shelves while waiting for the bus. “I probably bought a wing of the library with my overdue fees,” he quips.
In college Van Uum bought an old bookcase and says it was the only thing in his apartment that he cared about — that and the volumes it held, many of which he turned to for answers in life. “Books are there for you in transitional moments — going to college, getting married, getting a job,” he says. “Whatever you’re going through, the answers are there, in books.”
With that reverence for the printed word, it’s not surprising that Van Uum has been in the bookstore business for nearly 30 years. In 1986, he founded Joseph-Beth Booksellers, later purchased Davis-Kidd Booksellers, including the beloved Memphis store, and has withstood the changing fortunes of a challenging industry. In 2010 and 2011 he faced a bruising bankruptcy and auction that left Davis-Kidd fans holding their breath. But after heightened fears that Van Uum — and Memphis — would lose the landmark store in Laurelwood Shopping Center, they both came through intact, but not unscathed. Recalling that time still hits him like a kick in the gut and triggers the comment, “Business brings out some of the worst in people.”
A fter the auction dust had settled and Van Uum managed to buy back the store from liquidators, Davis-Kidd was renamed The Booksellers at Laurelwood and benefited from $500,000 in remodeling, including an overhaul of the popular in-store restaurant, Booksellers Bistro (formerly Bronte). “It would have been an absolute sin if this store had closed,” Van Uum says today. “I couldn’t stand that.”
Four years after the bankruptcy debacle, the 56-year-old bibliophile identifies himself as “president, CEO, and debtor” then adds with a laugh, “actually debtor ought to come first.” Caught up in a digital revolution that spells endless headaches for brick-and-mortar stores, he stresses the importance of “moving forward.”
The key, he says, is to focus on his strengths. Asked to identify them, Van Uum replies: “I have the gift of vision and the ability to lead people towards a common cause. And somewhere [inside] I have more courage than I ever thought possible. I’ve been blessed with a really awesome family, good friends, and people to work with. As long as we can pay the rent, make payroll, keep the lights on, we’ll keep things popping around here. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a challenge.”
“Thelma and Karen were so gracious.”
V an Uum didn’t set out from college wanting to run a bookstore. After earning a degree in business marketing from the University of Cincinnati, he was hired by FMC Corporation selling raw-material chemicals in bulk loads. “It was a great job,” says Van Uum, who headed a territory that included Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Tennessee.
But even then he felt called to start his own business and while in Memphis, he considered buying a franchise of Auto-Chlor. “They sell commercial dishwashers, and I sold them products for their business,” he says. Though that pursuit didn’t work out, Van Uum kept his eyes open for an entrepreneurial opportunity, and wherever he traveled he visited the city’s bookstores.
“When I’d come to Memphis I’d go to the one in Overton Square,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget sitting in the front window of that little store, reading the entire One Minute Manager. And then I bought the book!” he laughs.
In 1986 he took the plunge of opening his own bookstore. “I was looking in Cincinnati and Cleveland, then went to Lexington, Kentucky, on a lark,” he says. He found space there in a shopping center and christened the store Joseph-Beth Booksellers, after his and his ex-wife’s middle names. “It was successful from Day One,” Van Uum recalls. “When I opened, it was 6,000 square feet. And I probably expanded it five times, up to 13,000 square feet.”
Before long, he opened a second store in Cincinnati and moved to that city. By then he had come to know Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd, owners of Davis-Kidd Booksellers, which they started in Nashville in 1980; the Memphis store opened in 1985, and other locations were in Knoxville and Jackson. During those years, they all used a book-buying and inventory service started by Tom and Lewis Borders, the founders and owners of the first Borders Bookstore. “Thelma and Karen were so gracious,” says Van Uum, “and I got to know them very well. We sort of grew up in the business together. Then one day they decided to retire. We talked, and one thing led to another.” In 1997, Van Uum became owner of the four Davis-Kidd properties.
While the Memphis and Nashville stores did well, the Jackson store was floundering, and the lease was running out on the Knoxville location, so Van Uum closed the latter two. In addition to his Joseph-Beth locations in Lexington and Cincinnati, he opened three more, in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Charlotte.
Regarding the Davis-Kidd stores, the former owners speak positively about Van Uum’s purchase. “We had seen the stores Neil had built and thought they were beautiful and had a good inventory,” says Karen Davis, who lives in Nashville and owns a specialty travel company. “Neil had a keen eye for how to design a store that was appealing to the customer.” Thelma Kidd, now a life coach in Nashville, adds that she and Davis felt Van Uum’s purchase of Davis-Kidd would mean “a continuation of having excellent stores.”
“The big stores were opening left and right.”
B ookstores have always faced tough competition. As Van Uum puts it, “For years, people have predicted the death of the book. Television would kill it. Movies and DVDs would kill it.” Yet in spite of such dire predictions, business “rolled along pretty well,” he says.
Nonetheless, by the late 1990s, the chain bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Borders, posed formidable threats to independent booksellers. “The big stores were opening left and right,” says Van Uum, all of them selling more cheaply than the indies could afford. Discount retailers like Walmart compounded the drain on profits, as did online stores like Amazon.com, with its huge “virtual” warehouse of volumes the store could sell at cost. If those threats weren’t enough to have independents looking over their shoulders, free content on the Internet really made them nervous. “Time was, you had a question or concern, you’d go to the library or the bookstore,” says Van Uum. “That was changing fast.”
Change soon generated an even bigger threat: the proliferation of electronic readers, which allow customers to download many books for free or at nominal cost and include such products as Kindles, Nooks, and iPad’s iBooks. “A big portion of our customers migrated overnight to e-readers,” says Van Uum. “They were probably the biggest blow to business. We had continuing erosion of sales as a result.”
These digital marvels wreaked havoc on the big chains as well. In November 2010, Barnes & Noble announced it was putting itself up for sale, news that sent chills through the industry — and prompted a phone call from Van Uum’s bankers. “They’d been watching our sales anyway,” he recalls. “Then they saw that story. They said, ‘Neil, when your loan is up in five months, we’re not gonna renew it.’ I was sitting in my daughter’s driveway in Austin [Texas], and I was like what?! They said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us this was going on in the book industry?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not good but — you’re just gonna cancel?’”
Though he felt the strain over the following weeks, Van Uum was fairly confident he could save the business. “In many cases it was a textbook [retail] reorganization,” says Van Uum. “Prune the bad stores, go forward with a small organization, and find success on the other side.”
One of the pruned stores was Davis-Kidd in Nashville, a loss that still grieves Van Uum and its former owners. Says Kidd: “Neil is a visionary and clearly enjoys the creation of new stores. [But] we didn’t agree with some of his decisions, the most significant being to move the Nashville store into [the Mall at Green Hills] . . . And we only learned of its closing just hours before it was announced publicly; that made it practically impossible for us to help locate someone in Nashville who might have stepped in to keep the store open.” Davis adds: “[That] store was an icon in the Nashville community and even today I hear from former customers that they miss it.”
“I knew I had to do something about Davis-Kidd.”
M eanwhile, pruning wasn’t enough to fix the problem. Van Uum’s creditors decided to sue Ingram Book Company — his primary supplier — for $6 million, a suit that spoiled any plans for restructuring. After months of trying to reorganize, his assets would go to auction.
That event took place in late April 2011 and the only person bidding against Van Uum was Robert Langley, his former landlord in Lexington. Without going into detail about why Langley would oppose him, Van Uum says, “Some people think anything goes in the world of business. I spent eight hours bidding for my company, trying to keep it, and this guy just keeps bidding me up. [It’s hard] when you have a company you’ve built for 25 years, bring it through months of a reorganization, and watch it ripped from you in a single day.”
Van Uum left the attorney’s office with sagging spirits. “I lost my company, Joseph-Beth, and the Davis-Kidd store was going to close because of this deal.” He went back to Cincinnati, just to keep moving. “I guess I took a day to feel bad,” he recalls. “Next day I knew I had to decide what I was going to do.”
After taking Van Uum’s stores at auction, Langley sold them to Gordon Brothers liquidators. Disturbed about the fate of Davis-Kidd, Van Uum tried to find a buyer, “but no one I talked to had the expertise to make it work. So I knew I had to do something.” With financial backing from Tom Prewitt, owner of Laurelwood Shopping Center, Van Uum purchased the store from the liquidators. “Tom and I got together and we saved it. I signed a new 10-year lease.”
While devotees of Davis-Kidd rejoiced when the news came that it would remain open, Van Uum can’t clearly recall how he felt that day in mid-May 2011. “People ask me that,” he says. “I don’t know. I was tired. I just look at God. He’ll throw things in my direction, but I have to keep moving forward. I wanted my daughters to see how I reacted. And I wanted people who think I’m a leader to say, ‘That’s how I would want to be if I got my ass kicked.’”
The first action required of Van Uum was to remove the Davis-Kidd name from the store: “[Langley] even bought the rights to that,” he says. “We thought about other names, maybe Neil’s Bookstore, but that wouldn’t be right with so many staff who have been here forever. So we became The Booksellers at Laurelwood. We were able to keep everybody,” he adds. “We employ 62 people divided between the store and Booksellers Bistro. And we all sell.”
“The more comfortable you make me, the more I will buy.”
A dapting to industry changes meant adding e-books to Booksellers’ inventory several years ago because “we need to offer our customers books in whatever form they want them,” says Van Uum. But independent bookstores must offer something their challengers don’t. Service of veteran staffers, book-signings by popular authors, children’s programs, and of course good food at the Booksellers Bistro all serve to draw shoppers. Perhaps even more important is the welcoming atmosphere that Van Uum felt years ago at the little store in Overton Square. “That was the model I wanted,” he says. “The more comfortable you make me, the more I will buy, and I think others will be that way too.”
Beyond that, “we do so much besides sell books,” he continues. “We look at our product mix, try to determine what people who love books would also love. Gift items do well, and people especially like to buy locally made gifts. Music used to be a good seller, but thanks to electronic sales, that has seen a steady decline.”
Overall, books and magazines comprise 65 percent of sales, and nonbook items, 35 percent. “But you blend Bistro sales into that,” he adds, “and books and magazines drop to mid-50 percent of sales.”
“People live life through books.”
E xplaining what brings customers in to browse, relax, and hopefully buy, Van Uum says, “Reading is cultural. People who are readers are different from others. It’s like people who go to sporting events when they could watch them on TV. They go to games, and readers come to bookstores. They want to be part of the culture, to immerse themselves in books. So our goal is to foster that culture.”
Asked why he stays with the bookstore business when he could try another field, he says, “It’s important work. People live life through books. So that’s a symbiotic relationship for me that just fits. I know I could do other things. But I think I’m pretty good at what I do.”
Nonetheless he cites some hard facts about the bookstore scene in general: “Sixty percent of chain stores have closed. Borders is gone. Barnes & Noble is in retraction, stagnant, and say they’re going to close 20 stores this year. [The remaining big chain] Books a Million is still alive but I don’t hear much about them. Public companies are fueled by Wall Street speculation. Money’s good if lenders feel good about you. If not, you’re floundering. And it’s no secret: Most smart people say bookstores are not a growth industry.”
One national expert on bookselling takes a more hopeful view, especially of independents. Oren Teicher is head of the American Booksellers Association, a membership trade organization. In his 25 years with the ABA he has seen indies survive competition from big-box retailers, mall stores, warehouse clubs, online stores, and now, of course, digital readers.
Even up against all that, he says, “indie bookselling is alive and well in the U.S. Sales across the network of member ABA stores is up. New stores are opening, existing stores are opening additional locations . . .” He attributes this resurgence to several factors: the localism movement across the country, easier and more affordable access to technology that allows stores to communicate more readily with their customers, and efforts by publishers to work with booksellers. Beyond that, he echoes Van Uum about the importance of a “physical place.”
“Consumers like to interact with other customers and to take advantage of the knowledge and passion about books one can find in an indie bookstore,” says Teicher. “In the end . . . that is why we continue to thrive, despite expectations about our demise. We are still here and we are not going away.”
Regarding Van Uum, he says, “He and his store typify the indie resurgence.”
“This is the work I’m supposed to be doing.”
A s owner of another bookstore in downtown Cincinnati called The Booksellers on Fountain Square, Van Uum splits his time between his hometown and Memphis. When he’s here, he spends most every waking moment at The Booksellers at Laurelwood: “I just want to be in the store as much as I can. They closed with me last night.”
When he’s not working, he might be reading, and often has three books going at a time. “One will be a work of fiction because I love having someone else’s story to turn to and catch up on,” says Van Uum, who’s a fan of novelists Jonathan Tropper and Larry McMurtry. “I also read one book for personal or spiritual enrichment. I really enjoyed [musician] Bono’s life journey as a Christian, as well as the story of the Guinness Beer Company and its rooting in spiritual matters.
“I also try to get through a history book,” he continues, “recently a couple about World War I. The interesting thing about all these is that they provide me guidance, balance, and a foundation to better work through challenges of my life.” Or — as he said earlier — books are there to help through transitions. So what did he turn to during one of the hardest transitions of all — bankruptcy? “An all-time favorite,” he responds: M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled .
Although divorced, he’s still on friendly terms with his ex-wife. They have three daughters, ages 28, 25, and 21, one of whom is a “crazy book nut,” the other two not so much. Among his blessings, family is at the top. But what has really strengthened him through the years is his trust in God.
“When people ask how I get through difficult times, I could lie and say I’m just tougher than everybody. But I think it’s my faith,” says Van Uum. “That faith tells me I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing. Life is out to get you, nobody gets out alive,” he says, smiling at that old joke. “But God gives us gifts. It’s up to us to accept them and to keep moving forward.
“I’m probably gonna die at my old bookshelf, fall over when I’m 80 or something,” he concludes with a laugh. “But that’s okay. What have I got to feel bad about?”