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Wednesday, 11 November 2009 13:37

Dueling downtown bookstores to join forces in Waynesville

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Waynesville’s two independent bookstores — Osondu Booksellers and Blue Ridge Books & Cafe — have merged.

The economics of independent bookstores have made it nearly impossible for a town of Waynesville’s size to support two stores. Squeezed by the discount prices of online booksellers and the limitless inventories of national chains, the local bookstore has become a niche market.

“It’s not just this economy. Most places in the country, a town the size of ours is pretty fortunate to have one independent bookstore, and two is always going to be a struggle,” said Margaret Osondu, owner of Osondu Booksellers.

Robert Baggett, owner of Blue Ridge Books & Café, closed a deal with Osondu last Friday that makes her store part of Blue Ridge Books and News, Inc., a newly formed entity. Osondu will act as director of operations, with responsibilities ranging from ordering books to hosting authors, while Baggett will head the new venture as president.

The two stores will retain separate names and locations for now, but Baggett plans to consolidate the two storefronts at a new downtown location some time in the next 18 months.

The two stores are currently separated by just three blocks at opposite ends of Main Street. Neither one has sufficient parking, Baggett said.

“We are aware parking is a problem for both stores but we are determined to remain within the vicinity of the downtown Waynesville area,” Baggett said.

Baggett opened Blue Ridge Books with his sister Betsy in summer 2007. The store carries a wide selection of newspapers and magazines and houses a coffee bar and Wi-Fi café, often crowded with people tapping away on their laptops. The well-lit open store design features clearly-marked book sections and the type of display kiosks familiarized by major chains like Barnes & Nobles. But the store has, according to its customers, retained a family feel.

“Book chains are impersonal. You’re just one amongst thousands,” said Tony Antonino, a Blue Ridge Books regular. “This is like a true family atmosphere with relationships that go beyond, ‘How much is it?’”

While Blue Ridge Books has made its name largely on its inventory of periodicals and successful café, Osondu Booksellers caters to the true booklover.

Margaret Osondu has created a community of readers centered on the books she orders, the authors she brings in, and the recommendations her staff provides. She said she will bring all of her skills to the new company and the result will be a better, stronger independent bookstore in Waynesville.

Osondu said she learned of Baggett’s interest in her business through a third party and was immediately receptive. Baggett said the deal happened fast.

“The whole thing was eight days from the negotiating table to the closing table,” Baggett said.

Pam Kearney, who volunteers at Osondu Booksellers and considers herself a loyal customer, expressed her relief that the merger will ensure that Waynesville will have an independent bookstore going forward.

“I’m a book lover so I’m just thankful we still have an independent bookstore in town,” Kearney said. “I’m actually a customer of both, and I think they each have positive things they bring to the marketplace.”

Kearney said consolidating two stores with complementary strengths should produce a better business.

“Blue Ridge brings the magazines and newspapers, which from my perspective are important to the community,” she said. “Margaret brings the knowledge of getting authors to come and read. She knows the local history well. I don’t think we’ll be losing anything. I think we’ll probably be gaining.”

Betsy Baggett, who co-owns Blue Ridge Books with her brother, said she was excited about the prospect of working with Osondu.

“I just feel together we can be more of a force,” Betsy said. “We’ve got the magazines and the coffee bar and Margaret has the book signings and the knowledge, and it’s a win-win situation.”

Under the new arrangement, Osondu will order the books for both stores and control the inventories. Robert Baggett said he had no plans to cut staff and both stores would be able to grow their inventories as a result of the deal.

“It will be a positive thing for the book-lovers of Haywood County,” Baggett said. “Both stores will offer a wider variety and a larger inventory. We have some exciting long-term plans to serve the community better.”

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