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Store owner didn’t do it by the book

Special to The Times

Christy Coyne recently opened a second location of her Orange County children’s bookstore, the First Page, and she’s already working on the next chapter of what she hopes will be an ongoing business success story.

The plotline has her creating an e-commerce site by April and selling her first two franchises by September.

She’ll also finalize contracts with three employees that she wants to turn into partners, which will give them ownership stakes in the growing operation.

Like many main characters in books, Coyne knew she had to buck the odds. In Coyne’s saga, the goal is to create a children’s bookstore that would be a profitable haven for harried moms and curious kids alike.

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“I threw away all the ideas of what a bookstore should be,” said the mother of two, who has sunk $500,000 into the business. The first store broke even last year.

Instead of cramming as many books as possible onto towering shelves, the First Page displays books by grade level, face out, taking up valuable sales space.

Shelves are low so parents can keep tabs on their children. Stuffed toy dragons sit next to books on knights and dragons, creating an easy gift combo.

And floors are hardwood to ensure easy cleanup in the stores, which welcome customers bearing food and drink.

It’s the kind of store she dreamed of after a bad experience shopping at a large chain bookstore a few years ago. Picking through a jumbled shelf trying to find a Curious George title, Coyne turned her back on her 2-year-old, who took the opportunity to pull all the books off a nearby ledge.

There had to be a better way, Coyne thought. Her vision: “I am walking into a store with two small children and I am exhausted,” said Coyne, whose kids are now 5 and 7. “I think: How lovely to have some nice, cheerful not-tired person to help me in and out of here and somebody who would think my children are charming.”

With that 2002 epiphany, the story of the First Page began.

Within a year, Coyne, a lawyer by training, had opened her first store in Costa Mesa. It took far more money than she ever imagined, she said. She and her husband, a corporate attorney, took a loan against their home and Coyne sank a small inheritance into the business.

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She used the money to hire the designer of the Warner Bros. retail stores to plan her shop. High-quality shelving and displays also took a chunk. And Coyne focused on buying quality books that might not be available in the national competition.

“I knew it was going to be all about the niche, figuring out what do superstores not do that I could do better,” said Coyne, who opened a Newport Beach store in October.

She doesn’t carry Barbie titles, for example. Or Disney books. Or even the “Goosebumps” series.

“Instead of having 15 OK books, we have four fabulous books,” Coyne said. Her stores stock about 2,000 titles each.

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Coyne certainly has a lot from which to choose. The children’s book publishing business is a vibrant industry, turning out titles faster than in the general book market.

Children’s books accounted for about 10% of all titles published in 2005, up from 7% in 1995, according to R.R. Bowker, a publishing information company.

The number of children’s bookstores is also growing overall, although less vigorously. The Assn. of Booksellers for Children added 12 bookstore owners to its rolls last year for a total of 200.

Although that is off from the “golden age” of children’s bookstores in the pre-superstore 1980s, it is a respectable gain, said Kristen McLean, executive director of the group.

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“It is still very, very competitive,” McLean said. “Booksellers are really having to exercise a lot of creativity to stay competitive.”

Even then, selling books for children isn’t all fun and games, industry insiders say.

Competition from large chains that offer deep discounts and online sites such as Amazon.com make it tough in a business with profit margins of 3% to 5%, experts say.

Two weeks ago, members of the Southern California Children’s Booksellers Assn. held their final meeting; the group is disbanding because of declining membership.

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“It’s not as easy and romantic as it looks,” said Alexandra Uhl, owner of A Whale of a Tale Children’s Bookshoppe, a Newport Beach store that opened in 1989.

Coyne believes she’s come up with a plot twist that could make it easier.

She’s creating an operations manual as part of her franchise setup documents that she hopes will cover all the bumps involved in launching her stores. She’s setting up an inventory control system and plans a central distribution center to serve the franchises she hopes to have.

She wants to help those with a passion for books but little business experience avoid the steep learning curve she experienced.

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“I was flying blind,” Coyne said. “ ‘Losses’ is too mild a word. ‘Hemorrhaging’ would be a good word. We were hemorrhaging cash.”

Early on, Coyne switched gears several times. She dropped her high-school section the first year. Her second store used taller shelves for the older kids’ books at the back of the shop.

But most important, she added many more gift items, each pegged to a book in the store, which gave sales a boost. Toys typically have a higher markup than books. Make-a-tiara kits now sit next to princess books, for example.

“This is something bookstores are starting to figure out because what are typically called sidelines, or non-book merchandise, is becoming critically important, particularly in children’s bookstores, to help them support their bottom line,” McLean said.

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Coyne is passionate about offering her store concept to other moms, or dads, who love books and the idea of bookselling but want to balance work and family -- not the route of the typical entrepreneur.

“It needs to be a person who is looking to somehow have both,” Coyne said. “Because you are not going to be making $100,0000 a year, but you can have family vacations whenever you want.”

That sounds like a happy ending.

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cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

The First Page

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What: Children’s bookstore

Owner: Christy Coyne

Locations: Two in Orange County

Founded: 2003

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Employees: 9

What’s next: Plans to add online ordering and franchise the stores’ parent-friendly concept this year.

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Source: Times research

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Los Angeles Times


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