The little book store that could

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Sun Rose Words and Music Sun Rose Words and Music

As Borders says goodbye, Sun Rose survives

Like “The Little Engine That Could,” the Ocean City bookstore chugged along with the “I think I can” spirit to survive not just a bad economy but changes in technology that threaten to snuff out the printed book industry.

Despite considerable odds, Sun Rose Words and Music has not only survived; it’s thrived. With the recent shuttering of nearly 400 Borders book stores, and with Barnes & Noble struggling, it seems as if the era of the big box bookstore is over. Like David and Goliath, the little neighborhood book store is alive and well.

Not long ago, pundits were writing the obituary of the small, independently owned book store, saying superstore chains and online giants would eat small stores alive. But something happened on the way to their demise; the lure of the small store was underestimated. In a plot twist rich in irony, some small book stores are thriving as mega-booksellers liquidate. The big boys started a price war, figuring they’d feast on their smaller competitors until they ran them out of town; but look who has the last laugh.

The megastores lured customers with lattes and lectures, but the folksy locals offered something far more important. At Sun Rose, you won’t get a cup of coffee, but you will get good service.

“We really, really focus on customer service,” says Nancy Miller, who owns the store with her childhood best friend Roslyn Lifshin. “That’s our main product. We sell books, but what we really sell is personal service. We keep our prices competitive. The economy is not good, but people are still buying books and we are staying the course. We offer one-stop shopping. Buy the book, buy the card and we’ll gift-wrap it for you.”

“Borders going out of business really helps us,” says Miller. “We’re the only full-service book store that’s open year-round, seven days a week in the area. You have to go to Cherry Hill to find another book store that offers what we do. We’ve seen a lot of new faces, not just summer visitors but people who live out near the Hamilton Mall and no longer have a book store. We always do a good Christmas business; this year we think it will be even better.”

Miller says Sun Rose has developed relationships in the community, particularly with regulars, whom Miller and Lifshin consider friends. The Asbury Avenue seashore location offers a distinct advantage.

“Most bookstores aren’t that busy in the summer, people go away,” said Miller. “Ocean City is unique; that’s our busy time. We have the locals and the second homeowners throughout the year. The summer provides a whole new market, we have a constant turnover and that’s very helpful.”

Before Borders began liquidating, the bookstore industry included nearly 11,000 stores across America with a combined annual revenue of $15 billion.

The bulk of those sales, almost $10 billion, were made at "superstore" locations of chain leaders Barnes & Noble and Borders Group. Online retailer Amazon now sells more than $4 billion in books annually. The 50 largest companies rang up about 75 percent of the sales.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” says Miller. “A couple of weeks ago a man came in and said ‘Well, you put Border’s out of business, who are you going after next?’ You don’t know what will happen. People like our little downtown, coming here is part of coming to Ocean City.”

“We have the interpersonal relationship, you can’t get that in a big box and you certainly can’t get it online,” she says. “You’re not going to order a Kindle and have it arrived wrapped for you.”

As for the Kindle, Miller says it doesn’t make a good “beach book.”

“It has no cover, first of all. And you can’t put it down and bookmark the page while you go walk the beach or jump in the ocean. Are you halfway through? How would you know? The dog-ear bookmark is important in a beach book – it’s a sense of accomplishment when you finish a book. You can’t put the Kindle on the book shelf at the shore cottage and encourage your guests to go pick a good book to read. We’ll always have that niche, as long as people keep coming to the shore. It’s a visual satisfaction.

“They want to hold it in their hands,” she says. “They even like the smell of a book. It’s not just words, it’s a book. A Kindle is not a book. We can’t stop technology, but maybe we can slow it down.”

The economy is a concern, she says, but “not so much.”

“We’re not a high-ticket item. In a bad economy, people want a distraction. A book is reasonable entertainment. In a way, the economy is helping us. A book is not extravagant.”

Miller and Lifshin stumbled on Sun Rose by chance.

“The former owner was ready to move on,” says Miller. He tried to sell the business but the sale fell through so he decided to sell off the inventory and call it a day. A large 30 percent off banner was serendipitous. Tired of the corporate world where she worked as a commercial copywriter, Miller was intrigued.

“I always loved Sun Rose; I came in and found out it was for sale,” said Miller. “I called Roslyn at work and said, ‘You want to buy a book store?’ We’ve been friends since we were 11 and that was our dream.”

“I said, ‘A bookstore? Great!’” says Lifshin. “I was naïve. We had no experience, just a lot of desire.”

The store was at that time located in the 600 block of Asbury Avenue. With the help of part-time worker Jean Shaw, who organized a new children’s section, the store took off, but the location held it back. Shoppers strolled Asbury Avenue, but missed the 600 block.

“Jean would tell us that she wanted to go out to the corner on Seventh Street and scoop people up with a net,” says Miller.

When the opportunity to move the store to the old Leon’s building in the 800 block opened up about five years ago Miller and Lifshin jumped.

“Our sales soared,” says Miller. “We used to be a destination, now we get walk-by traffic. We’re a lot more noticeable here. We have a larger store and we were able to expand our stock and offer office supplies and music. We’ve computerized and that’s opened up a whole new world. We bought this building before the real estate boom; that was a big help.”

Competing with the mega-sellers has not been easy.

“We have a niche,” says Lifshin. “We’ve tried to create a nice atmosphere and welcome people to come back. We establish relationships and when people come in here it’s like we’re all friends. They like to have a recommendation when they buy a book. If we haven’t read it, we know someone who has and we pass on what we’ve learned. People mention the charm of coming here; I think honestly a lot of people are just tired of the impersonal feeling of the chain stores.”

Chain stores are uniform; once inside, it's hard to remember which chain you're in. The formula is simple; a large number of books in all categories, a cafe tucked in a corner, shelves full of newspapers and magazines and chairs to sit and read.

“Maybe people just finally tired of that,” says Miller. “We offer a friendly face, a pleasant greeting. People want to retire here because they feel so comfortable. We have a lot of second home-owners; they seem so relieved to be down here and away from the rat race.”

The new bridge may lure them to the shore, but it won’t lure them away.

“People do not want to go over that bridge,” said Miller. “There’s another whole world over there. We’re not interested. We don’t know what’s over there and we don’t care, we’re not going. I think a lot of people feel that way, it’s the ‘I’m not leaving the island’ thing and it does nothing but help us.”

Sun Rose Words and Music Sun Rose Words and Music

Sun Rose Words and Music Sun Rose Words and Music

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