WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Chain Reaction : Westwood Booksellers Warily Await Opening of Huge Store by National Rival and Wonder, Can the Independents Last?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Independent bookstores these days face crushing competition from large retail chains--and nowhere is the trend more evident than at Westwood Boulevard and Rochester Avenue in Westwood.

Borders, a large national book chain, is opening a mammoth outlet there next month--directly across the street from Sisterhood, Los Angeles' first feminist bookstore. Though the location is the same, the contrast couldn't be more striking.

Sisterhood makes do with 1,200 square feet of space in what was once a three-room house, built in the 1920s. The place is crammed full of books (because the store isn't computerized, no one can say how many) and also offers magazines, pottery, jewelry, T-shirts and handbags that for the most part are made by women.

The Borders Books and Music outlet across the street will be the 62nd and largest of the chain's outlets, featuring 170,000 book titles, 65,000 music titles and 8,500 video titles. Its 43,000-square-foot space will also house music listening areas and an espresso bar above a three-level parking garage.

Small wonder that Sisterhood's owners, former sisters-in-law Simone and Adele Wallace, see the new arrival as a threat to their store's existence. At a time when independent bookstores across the country are struggling to survive while chain stores thrive, the Wallaces are not sanguine about their prospects.

"I sort of feel like we're the family farm, and look what happened to the family farm. Look what happened to the horse and buggy," Simone Wallace said. "It's not that I want to be pessimistic about it, but who knows? Looking into the future, I just don't know."

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Borders and Sisterhood both began small, in the early 1970s. Borders was started in 1971 as a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., by two brothers who loved books, Tom and Louis Borders. The next year the Wallaces began Sisterhood in a storefront off an alleyway near Olympic and Westwood boulevards, moving it to its current site six months later.

Sisterhood has remained small-scale. Its books, in many cases from feminist presses, are divided by genre and category into small groups covering general literature, women of color, spirituality, mythology, feminist theory, recovery, violence against women, women and creativity, humor, and children's literature, among other areas.

A closet-sized room in the back contains free literature about programs for women, as well as a bulletin board spackled with feminists' business cards, housing information and miscellaneous announcements.

Sisterhood has hosted many readings and book signings over the years. It has stepped up such activities in the past year in response not only to news of Borders' arrival but also to the region's tough economic times.

A monthly salon series that features talks by prominent women and group discussions kicked off last Saturday with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal. On Oct. 15--the day Borders is scheduled to open--UCLA women's studies professor Sondra Hale will talk about her field research on women's social movements in Eritrea. A women's book group, led by store manager Julie Mitchell, began in June.

Every Sunday afternoon there are appearances by local writers. Recently the store hosted a publication party for the editors of a new quarterly publication, "The Lesbian Review of Books."

"What we're finding is we need to do much more promotion, much more events, to get people to come to the store," Simone Wallace said.

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While Sisterhood stayed small, Borders became a behemoth--though not immediately.

After developing and marketing an advanced computer inventory tracking system, the Borders brothers sold what had become a 22-store chain to the Kmart Corp. in October, 1992.

The brothers are no longer involved in bookselling, but their chain lives on. Having firmly established itself in the Midwest and East, Borders Inc. has been expanding steadily in the West. It plans to have 70 to 75 stores in place by the end of the year.

Borders' first Southern California store opened in Mission Viejo on Labor Day Weekend. The Westwood store's opening will be followed by an early November unveiling of a Torrance store, and construction will begin soon on a Santa Monica outlet, company officials say.

At Borders, shoppers will be able to find much of what they find at Sisterhood--frequently at lower prices.

The chain offers 30% discounts on bestsellers, and it sells most other hardcover books at 10% off. The Westwood Borders will feature about 1,500 women's studies titles and 1,000 men's studies titles, with many of these books broken out into lesbian and gay fiction and lesbian and gay studies sections.

Like other Borders stores, the store will be "fairly nicely appointed without being luxurious," said Dan Conetta, Borders Inc.'s vice president.

Chairs and benches will be scattered throughout to make browsing easier, the Cafe Espresso will have 50 seats and wallpapered walls with wood trim are intended to create a cozy feeling in the store.

Conetta said Borders chose the Westwood site in August, 1993, because "the demographics around there are terrific, as far as income and education. We pick our sites based on the mass of book and music lovers in an area."

Conetta said Sisterhood's presence had no influence on Borders' choice of the site, which was previously occupied by a mini-mall. Elizabeth Sims, western regional manager for Borders Inc., said she had initially been unaware that Sisterhood was across the street. "I was dismayed, frankly, that we were going to be such a close neighbor of such a respected bookshop," she said.

However, she added, "I really think they're going to do a better business because of spillover from us. Our employees will be instructed to refer people to Sisterhood" when Borders doesn't have a particular title.

"People will be sitting up in our espresso bar, and I'm sure their curiosity will be piqued," she said, by the view of Sisterhood's storefront.

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A year ago, when rumors began circulating that Borders was coming to Westwood, Simone Wallace found the news "just unbelievably shocking. It's every bookseller's worst nightmare--to have someone about 40 times bigger open right across the street."

Until a Borders executive paid a visit to Sisterhood in late May, Wallace had hoped the super-store's arrival was just a bad dream. Now, Wallace said, "I have more of a philosophical feeling about it, how it can be of value to us, and how we can emphasize that we're special."

Border's imminent arrival spurred the Wallaces to call a midsummer survival strategy meeting with local writers and activists who have been long-term supporters. The women offered practical advice on promotional ideas and ways to make the store "more '90s."

Some of those suggestions, including acquiring an 800 number to handle mail orders and starting a Frequent Buyers Club, have been implemented. The Wallaces are also passing out literature to customers, asking for their support.

At least some customers are likely to respond. Santa Monica writer Savina Teubal, author of "Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis" and other books, said she has favored Sisterhood since it first opened, doing much of her book buying there. Sisterhood is "a landmark," Teubal said. "For Sisterhood to fold is like feminism folding, almost."

Pamela Gray, a Santa Monica poet and aspiring screenwriter, visits Sisterhood two or three times a month to buy literary journals, books and to scan the bulletin board.

"It's really the only place on the Westside to find out what's going on in the (feminist) community," she said. Even if Borders carries the same titles as Sisterhood at lower prices, Gray added, she will still shop at Sisterhood.

"I think that there'll be a core that will stick around," she said.

Sims resists any suggestion that Borders and other chain stores represent an unfair threat to independent booksellers.

"I simply would say that when you go into business, it is a risk, and to expect that the business climate will never change is unrealistic," Sims said. "Small businesses of all kinds go down, just as small businesses of all kinds succeed."

In addition, she said, chain stores should be given credit for increasing Americans' literacy by making them more comfortable in bookish environments.

"To the average person it's sometimes intimidating to walk into a bookstore," Sims said. "But when you go into a store where the romance section is accorded the same respect as the philosophy section, and you get courteous attention and are not condescended to, you're more likely to come back."

Loralee MacPike, an English professor at Cal State San Bernadino and a Sisterhood regular who publishes a lesbian literary review, says she has heard good things about Borders.

"I know Borders is a good bookstore," MacPike said. "I just don't want to see it across the street from Sisterhood."

Although the 1970s spirit of feminist activism seems to have diminished, feminist bookstores have not outlived their usefulness, she said.

"There isn't much of a revolution going on, except for the feeling you get in feminist bookstores," she said. "We have to have a place to go that feels like our own, and Sisterhood feels like that place."

The Wallaces say they are determined to keep Sisterhood alive. "If we're driven out, if we have no choice, we'll become a volunteer co-op or something," Simone Wallace said. "We've been here 22 years. I think we'll stay."

Volume, Volume, Volume

A growing number of so-called super-stores have opened on the Westside.

Among them . . .

Bookstar (Santa Monica)

* Address: 1234 Wilshire Blvd.

* Opened: April, 1992

* Titles: 100,000

Barnes and Noble (Marina del Rey)

* Address: 13400 Maxella Ave.

* Opened: May, 1994

* Titles: 120,000

SuperCrown (Santa Monica)

* Address: 2800 Wilshire Blvd.

* Opened: April, 1994

* Titles: 80,000

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