Blue Jacket closes, café remains
- Published: March 8, 2018
Blue Jacket Books is closing — for reinvention.
The eclectic independent purveyor of used and rare books in downtown Xenia is shutting its doors for good May 12. A progressive sale starts Monday, March 5, with substantial discounts on most items in the store.
But while local bibliophiles will feel the loss, area foodies can take comfort in the continuance of Blue Jacket’s popular in-store café, Tables of Contents. The eatery is staying put, and may even expand in coming months as owners Lawrence Hammar and Cassandra Lee figure out what to do with the 6,000 square-foot space they rent, and plan to continue renting, at 30 S. Detroit Street. The three separate businesses located within the Blue Jacket complex will likewise remain open. Those include hair salon Live & Let Dye, Yellow Dog Pet Supplies and skin care supplier Our Family Soap.
The closing of the bookstore is bittersweet, according to Hammar last week. Lee was out of town and unavailable for an interview.
“I feel a sense of relief,” he said. “It’s been difficult emotionally and physically. And financially we lost our shirts.”
Declining revenues forced the decision to close. In-store sales fell sharply last year, culminating with a “terrible” holiday season, Hammar said. And January 2018 was the store’s worst month ever. Online sales and direct orders from customers have kept the store going, but the business overall has been losing money.
“It was finally time to say, ‘This isn’t working,’” he acknowledged.
Independent booksellers have actually made modest gains in recent years, rebounding from earlier losses during the economic downtown of 2008, according to figures from the American Booksellers Association, or ABA. In 2017, for example, overall book sales at indie sellers nationwide increased 2.6 percent over 2018. The ABA doesn’t track used booksellers specifically, however. And anecdotal evidence suggests those sellers are having a harder time competing with Amazon and other online retailers, according to Hammar. He noted that Acorn Bookshop, a used and antiquarian bookseller in Columbus, is going out of business after 25 years. In a Jan. 15 report in the Columbus Dispatch, Acorn’s owner cited online competition as a reason for shutting up shop.
Hammar announced Blue Jacket’s closure on Facebook Jan. 30, to a chorus of sympathetic and sorrowful comments from dozens of customers and area residents.
“Words fail me. I shall treasure all the special books found through your wonderful store,” one customer, Nancy Tuttle, wrote.
“The coming demise of [Blue Jacket] is heartbreaking and hard to understand,” wrote another, villager Ed Davis, an author and retired English professor.
The store’s husband-and-wife owners, who live just outside of Yellow Springs, bought Blue Jacket from its founder, Elizabeth Svendsen, in 2011. They moved the Xenia business to its current location in early 2013, after burst pipes flooded the store’s previous space, ruining half of its inventory at the time. From there, the couple began a spirited rebuild, expanding into a much larger new space, and subletting to several tenants. Lee, a chef and former restaurateur in her hometown of Portland, Ore., launched the in-store eatery Tables of Contents in late 2015, hoping to draw more customers to the store.
The café has grown steadily in popularity, and that business — thanks to the hard work of Lee, chef James Luckett and other kitchen workers — now breaks even, according to Hammar. But the anticipated boost to book sales didn’t occur.
“The symbiosis we were hoping for hasn’t happened,” he said.
Tables of Contents is located in the large center room of the store, currently nested inside colorful displays of thousands of books. That environment will change as Blue Jacket sells off its inventory — some 45,000 books, plus shelving units and other items.
“We hope to surround the café with something equally — or increasingly — beautiful,” Hammar said.
But no firm plans have been made. He said he hopes to continue selling some books online. Books are a lifelong passion for Hammar, so much so that even as he is closing out Blue Jacket’s inventory, he continues to acquire new volumes. For example, he’s visited Acorn Bookshop several times during its closing sale.
“I bought books there yesterday — for beauty,” he confessed during last week’s interview.
One book, a gorgeous calfbound first edition of Charlotte Brontë’s poetry, found an immediate buyer, Tom Miller, of Oakwood.
Miller stopped by Blue Jacket last week to examine the Brontë book, chagrined that he had missed it on Acorn’s shelves during his own recent visit to the store.
A 19th-century literature enthusiast, Miller has been one of Blue Jacket’s best customers, according to Hammar.
“I’m the best of his second-tier customers,” Miller clarified, with a laugh. His budget, not his literary appetite, limits his spending on books.
Blue Jacket Books has about a dozen highly loyal customers like Miller, and “putting books in front of them” has been one of his chief pleasures as a bookseller, Hammar said. But the store would need at least 10 times that number of core customers to survive, he added.
“If we had 111 people like Tom, we’d still be in business,” he quipped.
Both bookstore and café draw a “fair number” of Yellow Springs customers, as well as individuals and dealers from across Ohio and nearby states. By contrast, the store has attracted few shoppers from Xenia.
“I think the people of Xenia don’t know what they have,” said Blue Jacket employee Yvonne Wingard, who has worked at Blue Jacket for over a year and formerly managed Dark Star Books in Yellow Springs.
Hammar said he and Lee never seriously considered relocating to the village, despite the urging of some customers and several offers by local landlords. Rents are too high, and Yellow Springs already has two used bookstores in Dark Star and Epic Book Shop, he pointed out.
Wingard is one of two workers currently employed by Blue Jacket. The other is villager Cyndi Pauwels, who, in addition to cataloging books for Blue Jacket, is associate director of Antioch Writers’ Workshop. Hammar said he plans to give both employees paid vacation after the store closes. And he hopes to keep them on in some capacity — at whatever successor venture follows Blue Jacket.
“Lawrence and Cass are two of the best employers ever. They have really good hearts,” Wingard said.
After years of 80-hour workweeks, Hammar’s own plans post-closure are, well, pretty low key. Come mid-May, he’s headed to northern Wisconsin — to do what?
“Bass fishing,” he said. Then he turned back to his books.