The book closes on A Common Reader

May 01, 2006 9:30 PM  By

What killed A Common Reader? Was it simply management issues? Or can the death be pinned on category killer Amazon.com? The sudden January shutdown of the Pleasantville, NY-based book catalog and its parent company, The Akadine Press, remains a mystery.

Founded in 1986 by James Mustich Jr., A Common Reader carved out a niche as a seller of little-known and underappreciated books, some of which it republished under its own imprint. When Akadine Press filed for Chapter 7 at the United States Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York, on Jan. 10, it had 1,285 creditors holding more than $1 million in unsecured nonpriority claims.

The company’s remaining stock and equipment were auctioned off on Feb. 22. Another niche book cataloger, Atlanta-based Bas Bleu, acquired its house file. According to the data card, A Common Reader had more than 39,000 12-month buyers, who spent an average of $55 an order.

Balancing products and service

As of press time, Mustich was unavailable for comment. But Ann Ruethling, who founded Spring Valley, CA-based children’s-book cataloger Chinaberry in 1982, sees the demise of A Common Reader as yet another reminder that niche merchants need to find the right balance of product and customer service, as well as a strong business model, to stave off Internet monsters such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

“When Amazon became a presence, we became aware they were someone we needed to protect ourselves against,” says Ruethling, whose company — of which she remains a board member — also publishes the Isabella catalog of spiritual books and gifts. “You could search on Amazon for any book we carried, and they were selling it for less. We’d also get e-mails from our customers telling us they loved our catalog and would use it as a reference and buy from Amazon.”

To maintain its niche — and its business — Chinaberry added unique and exclusive items such as educational toys and customized coasters to both catalogs. Today the merchandise mix for both titles is almost evenly split between books and gifts. Reuthling’s theory was that carrying gift items not available at Amazon would keep Chinaberry and Isabella customers loyal, and that they while they were ordering gifts they’d order books for themselves as well.

Ruethling says her company’s customer service is another advantage it has over Amazon. Chinaberry’s contact center reps have actually read the titles offered by the catalogs, she say, and can therefore recommend additional books to customers.

“Some customers will go to Wal-Mart no matter what to save a few dollars, but our customers truly care about the book,” Ruethling says. “They can go to Amazon and not have us around for a year or two. But if they go to us, we’ll always be around. And if they care about what their family is reading and playing with, they’ll vote for customer service over price.”

Though Chinaberry had a few rough years, both titles exceeded sales goals in 2004 (the most recent year for which fiscal information was available at press time). The company’s posted a profit that year, turning around a net loss of $46,306 from the year prior.