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Wednesday, August 29,2012

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Schuler Books & Music hits the big 3-0

by Bill Castanier

Bill and Cecile Fehsenfeld have seen a lot when it comes to the life of the modern bookstore. They were there for its conception, its first clumsy steps, its ugly teenage years and its bloated post-adolescence. But now their baby, Schuler Books & Music — the state’s largest independent regional bookstore, with three locations in Grand Rapids and two in the Lansing area — is celebrating its 30th anniversary, just as the entire industry is entering a turbulent middle age. No one said being a parent was easy. 

“We were young and foolish,” says Cecile.

Ah, but as the Bard once said, a wise man knows himself to be a fool. In 1973, Bill and Cecile met while working in Ann Arbor’s Ulrich’s Bookstore. Bill went on to work for Tom and Louis Borders, the founders of what would become the mega-chain Borders, which eventually spawned 700 stores before being liquidated last year. When an opportunity arose in 1981 for them to open their own store in Grand Rapids, they moved quickly. 

Bill’s experience at Borders showed him that the bookstore industry was about to shift from cramped, dusty shops run by book snobs to the all-encompassing, full-featured store we know today. The Fehsenfelds still remember the first book they sold when they opened in late September of 1982.

“It was a book on ballooning,” Bill said. Since that first sale, Schuler Books itself has ballooned — in size, in number (up to five locations now) and even in name itself (the “& Music” was added in the mid-‘90s). The first Schuler in Lansing arrived in 1990 as a freestanding store of about 10,000 square feet in the parking lot of Meijer across the street from its current location in Meridian Mall. In 2002, when Eastwood Towne Center offered a new market, Lansing’s second Schuler was born.

In the mid-‘90s, the CEO of Borders proudly confirmed that it was a gentleman’s agreement not to open stores in Grand Rapids or the Lansing area to compete with their former employee, but Bill said it is more likely that Borders did not want to cannibalize its own attempt at selling books wholesale to other bookstores. Whatever the reason, it gave Schuler breathing room and the energy to keep up with the massive changes that were to come their way.

Yet to come were the really big box stores, Amazon, market consolidation and perhaps the most formidable opponent yet: e-books. Always in touch with national trends, Schuler was one of the first to offer e-book purchases through the store, including a self-publishing program in the Grand Rapids store. 

“The experience between e-books and paper is different,” he said. “People buying e-books are still buying paper. Books are not going away.”

Schuler Books & Music had already seen what could happen when DVD and CD sales plummeted with the advent of file sharing, and national competitors like Netflix. 

“Music and movies was a pretty good business to be in,” Bill said. Schuler also was among the first to install the now-ubiquitous cafés in their bookstores in 1995. The downtown Grand Rapids location also sells beer and wine in the café.

The stores have also been offering more unusual gift items and fair trade items which Cecile says “drives traffic.” The owners say a major portion of their success is due to the booksellers who work for them, citing numerous employees who have worked for them more than 20 years.

Cecile Fehsenfeld feels this is a very competitive advantage for independent bookstores and list other strong independent Michigan bookstores such as Mclean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey and Nicola’s in Ann Arbor as examples of stores with great sales staff.

“We have a different group of people than the national chains — they like to talk to customers about books,” she said, adding that a recent visit to Mclean & Eakin felt like “going home.”

But the Fehsenfelds aren’t just merchants — they take their relationship with the written word seriously. Cecile spent many years working at the national level on anti-censorship and freedom of expression issues. She said that bookstores in many ways have become the “public square” where ideas are exchanged.

“If independent bookstores don’t survive we will be more culturally bereft as a consequence,” she says. “I hope the public will understand that.”

As far as finding someone to carry on the Schuler name, Cecile says she and Bill have given it “a lot of thought,” with their children (the store’s siblings?) showing an interest. The bottom line: would they do it over again? 

“Yes,” they both say in unison.

After 30 years, still the proud parents.

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