The little bookshop that could

By Jane Biberman

The giant chains offered discounts, cafés and titles by the thousands. Tiny Fox Bookshop had bright ideas, loyal customers and well-connected friends. Guess who's flourishing?

It looked like the final chapter for the tiny Philadelphia mom-and-pop bookshop. A monstrous branch of the huge Borders bookstore chain opened its doors just around the corner, offering three floors of merchandise, big discounts and, of course, a coffee bar and café. Just off fashionable and frequented Rittenhouse Square, the brand-new Borders was an instant bestseller. Crowds poured through its double doors and up and down the elevator of the former department store building. They stood in long lines at the multiple cash registers with shopping baskets full of bargain purchases ranging from Elmore Leonard to Danielle Steel novels.

Meanwhile, the owners of the Joseph Fox Bookshop, the little store around the corner, were concerned. Their enterprise was housed in a basement down a flight of stairs on Sansom, a small street off the main thoroughfare. It offered only 500 square feet of literary classics, no coffee, no remainders, no discounts and certainly no Danielle Steel.

This may sound like a variation on the theme of You've Got Mail!, the film in which a huge conglomerate run by Tom Hanks drives Meg Ryan's cozy bookshop out of business. Since the Philadelphia Borders store opened in 1990, more than 1,000 (out of 4,000) independent bookstores in the U.S. have closed their doors, according to the American Booksellers Association. Independents' share of the consumer book market has fallen to just 15% from 33% ten years ago. But in the real-life case of Joseph Fox Bookshop, the little guys didn't merely survive—they flourished. Read on.

The arrival of Borders in Philadelphia and its suburbs was followed in 1997 by Barnes & Noble, carrying 125,000 titles, two years after the Internet giant Amazon.com spread its wings. To make matters worse, Joseph Fox, who established his bookshop in 1951, had developed Alzheimer's disease and retired in 1991. His wife, Madeline, was left to worry about both her husband (who died in 1998) and the store. Fortunately, their son Michael, who had effectively been running the business for his parents since the mid-'80s‚ was ready to take over.

“It took ten years of work to counter the effects of Borders, which carried a lot more books and originally discounted more heavily than it does today,” acknowledges Michael, now 48. “But I always thought we would endure. Maybe it was just a question of misplaced confidence.”

Michael is modest. It was more likely a matter of canny strategic planning. Michael and his mother recognized that they enjoyed one advantage over the chains: The Foxes could offer individualized, knowledgeable and personal service. The Foxes routinely steer their long-time patrons to books they're sure to enjoy, and they base much of their book buying on customers' suggestions. Over the years, this strategy built up a loyal clientele for the Foxes. Michael's special contribution was his realization that the store must attract new customers to remain viable. Borrowing a page from Borders, in the mid-'90s Michael began to sponsor readings by book authors.

Because of their sales clout, chains usually enjoyed an edge over smaller stores when it came to attracting author appearances. Besides, the Fox store lacked the space to hold readings. This liability turned out to be a blessing in disguise: It forced the Fox Bookshop to venture beyond its narrow confines to venues that were more exciting than anything the chains could offer.

“The idea didn't come to me in a flash,” Michael says. “It grew out of a series of serendipitous events.” Serendipity worked in Michael's favor thanks to two other hidden assets that the chain operations lacked: sound instincts and a local network of well-connected friends.

When Philadelphia gallery owner Helen Drutt English penned a book titled Jewelry of Our Time, published by Rizzoli, she held a party at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, a cultural landmark on Rittenhouse Square. “She invited me to sell books there,” Michael recalls. “It was a huge success, and the young woman who was in charge of events, Melissa Gray, invited me to do some more. So we had a party for Robert Fagles, the translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey, that had people bursting from the room.”

That week, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked Michael to name his store's best-sellers; when he put The Odyssey at the top of the list, that oddity inspired the Philadelphia Daily News to write an article praising the store. Newspaper columnists, of course, love to write about underdogs—another hidden weapon in the Foxes' battle with the chains.

The Daily News column in turn impressed Rose Hagan, headmistress of the Friends Select School in downtown Philadelphia—Michael's alma mater. She subsequently invited Michael to hold an author event there. “I shifted my focus to the school mainly because they were more receptive to working with me,” Michael explains. “Their enthusiasm and support allowed me to bring wonderful authors to Philadelphia.” As the events succeeded, says Michael, “I put more energy into them and we got more recognition in New York, so that now publishers often call me before I call them.”

“Michael has definitely brought us to Philadelphia,” says Maya Baran, marketing director for New York publisher Walker & Company. “If you want to build a book, he is a very important stepping stone.” One event Michael organized at the elegant Athenaeum on Philadelphia's Washington Square “stands out as one of our best functions,” she recalls. “There were 200 people there, and we turned away dozens at the door.”

Baran points out that publishers of quality fiction and non-fiction count on independent booksellers to promote and launch their books. “In many cases,” she says, “an independent store like Fox Bookshop will make the big chains pay attention and promote a book.” Last year, when Baran worked for Houghton Mifflin, Michael Fox organized what she calls “a wonderful event” for the former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. “We knew we wanted to send him to Philadelphia because of the significant African-American population,” she says, “and Michael got the word out to the community.”

Publishers' reps, stressed out by dealing with the chains' faceless bureaucracies, like the Foxes for more than the sales and publicity they generate. “Michael is a dream to work with—enthusiastic, knowledgeable and well-connected,” says Kim Nagy, marketing and publicity manager at W.W. Norton & Co., who has done a series of launches for architecture books with Michael.

Nagy adds that she enjoys coming to Philadelphia and browsing in the Fox bookshop. “It is my idea of what a bookshop should be,” she says, “not impersonal or dumbed-down like the chains, but rather, very aware of what the avid reader likes. Michael's mother has an encyclopedic knowledge of books, so it is fun to talk with her as well as with the rest of the staff. This personal approach is incredibly helpful to publishers who rely on expertise and connections. At a chain, I rarely get this personal attention to detail.”

Meanwhile, Michael began selling books at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which began featuring guest appearances by prominent authors in 1993. The Fox Bookshop was invited only after the library had tried several larger vendors. “Michael has definitely built up the audience for these readings,” says program director Andy Kahan. “Nearly all the events are sold out.” This summer, the two men began collaborating on a new series, “Cool Books, Hot Topics,” that will increase the total number of library author appearances from eight to about 36 a year.

In retrospect, Michael reflects, “By offering publishers more attractive, comfortable and larger venues away from the clatter of coffee cups, I was able to attract top authors. It's impossible to say where else these same authors might have gone, but my going off-site is the foundation of our success.”

Like many another flourishing family business successor, Michael was marinated in his trade at an early age. In his earliest memories, he says, the family's shared activity was reading. His largely self-educated father, Joseph, dropped out of high school in Philadelphia because “he didn't think he was reading what he should be reading,” Michael relates. (Joseph's taste stretched from Japanese art to 19th-century English history.) While serving in the South Pacific during World War II, he built a library in a Quonset hut on Guam. After the war he worked as a librarian and then in a bookstore until he opened his own shop in July 1951, a few doors down the block from its present location. At first his wife, Madeline, whom he had met at a literary program at Philadelphia's Jewish Y, stayed home to raise their two sons. But when Michael was about three years old, she began working in the store alongside her husband.

“I didn't even know why we needed filing cabinets,” she remembers, laughing at her lack of business acumen. Today, at 78, Madeline is computer-literate (Michael taught her) and can look up a book and order it in a matter of minutes. She's officially retired but spends all her time in the shop anyway.

After earning a master's degree in his passion—political philosophy—Michael thought of becoming a professor or a lawyer. “But like my parents, I love to read,” he says. He and his older brother, David, began helping out in the store as teenagers. When Joseph Fox showed the first signs of Alzheimer's, David (ten years older than Michael) was established as an architect. Michael readily stepped in and took over. Today he and his mother work side-by-side without apparent generational conflict.

Now the Foxes' decade-long battle against the chains seems to have paid off. This summer, on its 50th anniversary, Joseph Fox Bookshop vacated its basement premises and occupied the 1,000-square-foot space overhead that the Foxes had rented for 16 years to an upscale boutique. The Fox family bought the building 15 years ago—an astute move, according to family business consultant James Barrett.

“Controlling real estate is often the key to success when it comes to battling the chains,” Barrett says. “The Fox Bookshop is not at the mercy of increasing rents, which are the downfall of so many small stores.”

The enlarged space will allow Michael, for the first time, to host small parties at which authors will sign their books. But he says he'll also step up the series of off-site events at the Friends Select School that have made the Fox Bookshop well known. And he'll continue to sell books at Philadelphia's Free Library.

Although the move has doubled the store's floor and window space, the intimate atmosphere remains. “I took the model created by my parents and tried to make it work in the changing environment of the '90s,” Michael says. For example, Michael may finally overrule his parents' longtime policy of banning coffee from the premises. “I have no desire to emulate the coffee-shop atmosphere of the chains,” he says, “but we may give out refreshments when we have author readings in our larger space.”

The Foxes profess optimism about their store's future even though Michael is childless and his sole nephew is a painter. Estate or succession planning doesn't seem high on the Foxes' priority list. “Frankly,” Madeline says, “I love my work. I would just like to keep the old body together and keep on going for another 50 years.”

Adds Michael: “We just keep working hard. We have been able to survive, and sometimes even prosper, surrounded by chain stores, and I don't anticipate this changing unless I begin to take it for granted.”

Jane Biberman, former editor of Inside magazine, writes for a variety of magazines from her home in Philadelphia.

Article categories: 
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Issue: 
Summer 2001

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