Chains break independent Olsson's

Ama Wertz never had a proper last day at Olsson's Books and Records, the independent bookstore she managed in Dupont Circle. Chapter 7 bankruptcy strikes quickly - locks are changed in the night, professional liquidators auction off company assets. The workers - and the customers - never know what hit them.

"Everyone was taken by surprise," Wertz said, who managed the Dupont Circle store for two years. "Moving my stuff home took two trips by bike. I had a small library at the store."

Olsson's Books and Records shuttered its doors on Sept. 30, citing stagnant sales, low cash reserves and an inability to renegotiate current leases. The five remaining stores in the small regional chain, which once had nine locations, face liquidation in the coming weeks. Jim Tenney, 76, helped principal owner John Olsson open his second location in 1976. He remains in a state of disbelief.

"When they told me we might go into bankruptcy, I thought, well, United Airlines went into bankruptcy and they were out of it in four years," Tenney said. "How could they close us down in six months?"

Tenney was working at his ex-wife's bookstore when Olsson hired him on as principal buyer of the company's second location at 1239 Wisconsin Ave. N.W. On the store's first day of business in July 1976, they did $5,000 in business with no advertising. Adjusted for inflation, that's $20,000 in sales. The company grew, with locations popping up in Northern Virginia, from Old Town Alexandria to Arlington. Olsson's was one of the first businesses to open in the revitalized Penn Quarter neighborhood in downtown Washington. The rapid growth led to the company's undoing.

"Things spun out of control," Tenney said. "The accounts payable were no longer payable."

For the Olsson's inner circle - the devoted customers and loyal employees who made the store what it was - the closure is devastating. The online presence still lingers, with the company's MySpace page featuring events scheduled through January 2009. An informal testimonial board on the page boasts 409 comments from customers, lamenting the bookstore's demise.

"I sold my first Old Town yellow pages ad to Olsson's and I was a loyal customer for 16 years," Susan P. wrote Sept. 30. "You will be sorely missed."

John DeLong followed up a few hours later, "It would probably be better to have an Olsson's bailout rather than a Wall Street bailout."

For others, the closure isn't just the loss of a good place to shop. Stephanie Elizondo Griest, an author currently on tour for her memoir "Almost Mexican," had a book signing scheduled at the Dupont Circle location for Oct. 2. When the store gave her 48 hours notice that they'd gone under, she had to cancel her D.C. trip.

"You used to really be able to tell where you were by the selections on the book shelf," she said. "It just breaks my heart because so many of these bookstores are dying and going under. I've been doing book tours since 2004, and a number of the bookstores that I've visited are gone now."

Critics point to a shift in consumer habits that have made it hard for independent businesses like Olsson's to stay open. Customers are turning to online booksellers and big box retailers like Barnes and Noble and Borders, rather than locally owned bookstores.

"These days, it's either mom-and-pop or mega-global," Wertz said. "We were a neighborhood store, but with the demise of clear communities in D.C., real neighborhood identities, we were already obsolete."

When the big box bookstores arrived in D.C. - first Borders, then Barnes and Noble - the effect was immediate. Tenney remembers a 25 percent drop in sales when a Barnes and Noble opened down the street from the Georgetown Olsson's.

When the retailer opened another multi-level store in Bethesda, they featured eight gondolas on the main floor, filled with travel books.

"They were competing with an independent travel bookstore in Bethesda," Tenney said. "They're cutthroat."

It's a tough time for independent booksellers. The Book Alcove, a used bookstore in Gaithersburg, Md., plans to close its doors this month. Fifty percent off, everything must go. During a recent trip to peruse the collection, Tenney found a poignant symbol of the times. "The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol. 1." Hardbound. 500 pages. Cambridge University Press. Linen binding.

"You go to Cambridge for that, minimum $50. I guarantee it," Tenney said. "They were asking $6 for it, less the 50 percent off. That's $3."

Amber Healy was surprised to see the security gates pulled down at the Arlington, Va., Olsson's at 5 p.m. The next day, she read on their Web site that the store had closed for good, a fact that ruined her morning and presents the Arlington resident with few options.

"We are surrounded by chains, and Olsson's was a nice little store where you could find anything you wanted, and probably find stuff you didn't know you wanted by going there," said Healy, a two-year customer. "For somebody whose life is pretty much in Arlington, Olsson's was it. We're kind of stuck going to Barnes and Noble."

Most of the staff, including Wertz, was let go shortly after the stores closed. She has a part-time job tutoring students in German to fall back on, so she's more concerned with what D.C. has lost rather than the personal effects the closure is having on her life.

"Not sure what to buy someone recovering from an illness, or a friend who hates Dave Eggers but loves Thomas Frank or a coworker mildly interested in electronic jazz? We'd have solid suggestions," Wertz said. "Now all that avid readership and knowledge base - from the customers and the employees - is scattered, and there's one less reason for me to come to Dupont."

Tenney, on the other hand, doesn't have a fallback job. His son, a "real computer whiz," helped him file for unemployment online. He's put in an application at Trader Joe's.

"I like them, as an organization. One of the requirements was to lift 70 pounds six feet in the air," Tenney said. "I could never do that. I'm pretty much out of shape. They haven't called, either."

You can reach this staff writer at thescene@theeagleonline.com.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle