Closing the Book
Why the Bibelot Story Stopped at Chapter 11
Most of the messages are elegiac. One suggests a "save Bibelot" fund, whereby bookstore regulars would donate $1 to the cause of pulling the retailer out of bankruptcy. Another proposes forming a human chain around the Timonium Crossing store "to keep it from closing," as it and the other three Bibelot outlets will do by late spring, after liquidation. A majority of the notes recount the familiarity bibliophiles felt with the store and the happy memories made in it during its five years in business.
But others, zeroing in on the circumstances surrounding Bibelot's March 9 filing in federal court for protection from its creditors, are less wistful. One writer is "very disappointed in the owners for not using some of their considerable personal fortune to keep the stores going"--a shot at Bibelot President Brian Weese and his wife, Elizabeth Grass Weese, the latter a scion of the wealthy family that founded Rite Aid Corp. Another anonymous correspondent sarcastically urges the couple to "enjoy your offshore benefits," a reference to the Weeses' decision to shelter more than $25 million of their wealth in a foreign trust as they were in arbitration with Bank of America over an unpaid, $17 million May 1999 loan to Elizabeth Weese. A third alludes to her brother, Martin Grass, who led Rite Aid through a rapid 1990s expansion that eventually went bust: "The Grass family has truly left its mark on Baltimore. I hope you all go to jail."
The grand canyon between camps of public opinion points up the central mystery in the Bibelot story, which ended abruptly in Chapter 11: Was the well-regarded mini-chain the victim, a little guy squared against the discounting power and greater square footage of national booksellers, as media accounts have suggested? Or was Bibelot so poorly managed that it effectively killed itself? Brian Weese did not return telephone and e-mail requests for an interview. But some familiar with the stores and their circumstances say aspects of both characterizations are true--that Bibelot battled, if quixotically, against bigger competitors but caved when the Weeses couldn't sell their stores and the business became a threat to their wealth.
Carrie Miller, the chain's director of marketing and public relations for the past seven months, says that while there were problems at Bibelot there was nothing insidious about the way the stores were run--they simply couldn't compete in a glutted book market.
"We had great customers that spent a lot of time there, but they weren't buying," Miller says. "Our discounts couldn't match what [the national chains] could give. It hurt us." Bibelot's usual price reduction for bestsellers was 10 to 20 percent, whereas national chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders routinely knock off up to 40 percent, as does Amazon.com.
Still, Miller doesn't dispute the claim of others in the company who shared office space with Brian Weese and contend that Bibelot expanded too much and too rapidly. Some say he routinely underpaid employees, creating a revolving door of personnel that hurt customer service.
"[Bibelot] was done in by [Weese]," says one high-level staffer who worked for the company for four years (and who, like many people interviewed for this story, did not want to be identified for fear of legal entanglements). "It was all due to bad business decisions and cannibalization. They moved too fast, too big, and too stupidly."
"Things definitely could have been run better," adds Larry Klacik, assistant manager at the Timonium Crossing store. "[The company] could have paid its bills."
For the Weeses, some insiders maintain, Bibelot was simply an avenue to prestige. "It was a toy for them," says the four-year employee, who worked in the company's main office. "It was, 'How many authors can Brian take to dinner?' It was never run seriously as a business."
Bibelot has seemingly become such a local institution that it's easy to forget the company is barely six years old, the first store opening at the Festival at Woodholme shopping center in Pikesville in 1995. Bibelot's roots go back two decades earlier, to when Weese met Elizabeth Grass when both were studying at Georgetown University, he majoring in international relations, she in business. Elizabeth Grass could be forgiven if she believed that commerce flowed through her veins. Her father, Alexander, had founded the Camp Hill, Pa.-based Rite Aid drugstore chain, which her brother, Martin, would help make into a $12.6 billion enterprise.
In 1982, Brian Weese--who reportedly speaks seven languages--joined the State Department's foreign service. He eventually landed in Brazil, where the couple lived with their three children (they now have six). In 1985, they decided to return stateside "The story was that Brian's father-in-law wanted the grandkids closer," the four-year employee says. The Weeses settled in Pennsylvania, and Brian Weese went to work for Encore Books, a 93-store national chain owned by Rite Aid. Within three years, he was named president.
Rite Aid sold Encore in 1995, however, and Brian Weese was left to turn the page and move on. Weese told The Sun in 1999 that he and his wife saw that the Baltimore book market was being "underserved"--only Borders in Towson offered the big-store feel--and decided to fill the void. The result was Bibelot at Woodholme, outfitted with a coffee bar and a mazelike floor plan featuring shelves at angles to the aisles. Weese decided to name his store "Bibelot" after a valuable trinket or a very small book; the new company's corporate name, the Bloomsbury Group, also had literary relevance, name-checking the London neighborhood where the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster joined other artists and thinkers for discussions. Sources say he received quite a bit of help from his in-laws. The first Bibelot "was basically Brian's severance pay from Encore," one source with ties to the company claims. "Rite Aid built that store for him."
The store almost immediately struck a rich vein of public goodwill. "You knew from the beginning that the synergy between [the] Woodholme [location] and Bibelot was brilliant," says Gregg Wilhelm, who co-runs the book publisher Woodholme House with Weese. (Disclosure: City Paper has a business relationship with Woodholme House, which last year published a compendium of the CP column Charmed Life.) The store was lauded for its packed calendar of events, which frequently put the spotlight on local authors. The inclusion of a Donna's, pairing the local book superstore with Baltimore's homegrown variation on Starbucks, seemed like a stroke of genius. The Weeses, many believed, had a surefire formula for success.
So Brian Weese began to replicate the formula, first in Timonium and Bel Air in 1996, then in Canton in 1998 and the Village of Cross Keys in 1999. (There was also talk of a store in Columbia, but Bibelot backed out of the deal.) But by the time Bibelot established its Baltimore City beachhead in Canton, it had already closed one suburban store, in Bel Air, and some former employees say business problems had shown themselves even earlier.
An inner-circle employee who worked for the company for two years before being fired after a dispute with the Weeses recalled the opening in Timonium as a heady time for Bibelot. "People were really enthusiastic," the former employee says. "I think the workers were giving everything to make it succeed." Despite the staff goodwill, this source claims, Bibelot began to demonstrate a pattern of bad business behavior that would come to define it in the eyes of staff. Vendors began complaining of nonpayment, and, this source says, employees "had to beg" for reimbursement for company expenses they had put on personal credit cards. Workers on the bookstore floor were routinely hired for a shade above minimum wage, creating a never-ending procession of dissatisfied staffers. "I don't know whether there were money problems or whether [the Weeses] were greedy," the erstwhile employee says.
While the stores appeared to be run on a shoestring, the Weeses took lengthy, regular vacations with their children and bought expensive art for their offices, sources say. Collectors of works by modern masters Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol, among others, the Weeses would receive faxes at work outlining $20,000 bills for catering. "It was all pretty incongruous," says the four-year employee.
By the time Bibelot had achieved a presence in Baltimore City, the big chains had moved heavily into the area--Borders to Columbia, Barnes & Noble to Annapolis, Bel Air, Ellicott City, the Inner Harbor, Towson, and White Marsh--threatening the local company's market share. By attempting to expand rapidly, Bibelot may or may not have bucked common sense, but it certainly ran against national trends. The membership of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), which includes a majority of independent bookstores, had declined from 4,000 in 1991 to around 3,000 last year, says Scott McKinstrey, spokesperson for the ABA, on whose board Brian Weese served until late last year. And very few independents become chains. "The great thing about Bibelot was that independent usually means small, and they certainly weren't," McKinstrey says.
(Things have gotten so tough for independent bookstores that 26 of them and the ABA filed an antitrust suit against Borders and Barnes & Noble three years ago, alleging that major publishers made secret and illegal deals with the major chains to the detriment of smaller stores. The case is ongoing.)
The Canton store, opened in the widely acclaimed Can Company redevelopment, never really got off the ground; "It's still a work in progress," says the four-year employee. William Struever, president of Can Company developer Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse, says that while other retailers in the shopping center saw a 26 percent rise in revenues last year, Bibelot was down a bit. "We did a lot to try and spruce Bibelot up," he says. "They had a relatively low rent."
Struever describes Weese as "a great guy" who loved the book business, but he laments that the Bibelot owner "wasn't able to get to Canton very often. I think it showed [in the store's performance]." He says Weese was even less visible in Canton after Bibelot entered arbitration hearings with its main debtor, Bank of America, in the middle of last year.
The bank made a $17 million loan to Elizabeth Weese in 1999. Some sources say the money went for new offices and the Cross Keys store, but the former four-year staffer contends the cash "was going to get the places ready to sell" to another bookstore chain.
In the meantime, Rite Aid, which sources say supplied store materials to Bibelot over the years, was in trouble because of its own overexpansion. Martin Grass had saddled the drugstore chain with debt while buying other pharmacy companies, resulting in losses of $608 million total in 1998 and 1999. Grass was ousted as chairperson and CEO of Rite Aid in October 1999.
By last year, with the Bank of America note due in May, there was no question that Bibelot was on the block. "They wanted to sell to Crown Books last year, but [Crown] went out of business," says Bibelot's bankruptcy lawyer, Joel Sher. Other sources say the Weeses were courting both Borders and Barnes & Noble nine months ago--about the time the couple moved more than $25 million in property and stocks to a sheltered trust run by Alexander Grass and others in the South Pacific. The Cook Islands Trust Ltd.--also referred to in legal documents as the Book Worm Too Trust--effectively neutralized Bank of America's arbitration proceedings, begun against the Weeses in July.
As 2000 progressed, the couple encountered more trouble. A California advertising company filed suit in December, claiming Bibelot owed it more than $200,000. Bibelot also ran afoul of its former landlord in Bel Air, who was forced to tap a letter of credit Bibelot had obtained from another lending institution when the bookstore--which had sublet its space to a furniture store--didn't pay its October rent. By the time Bibelot folded last month, it was claiming $10 million to $15 million in assets and $15 million to $18 million in debts.
Now, others have pieces to pick up. Woodholme House's Wilhelm says he has assurances from the couple that the publishing firm, which has four new titles due for release this year, will press on. Alan Hirsch, president of Donna's, says he will remain open at the present Bibelot locations and that landlords at those spots are supporting the coffee-bar chain. "We're confident that workable situations will happen in Pikesville and Timonium," Hirsch says. Sources say that Borders is already sniffing around those two locations, although a spokesperson at the company's headquarters in Michigan wouldn't comment.
The situation in the city Bibelots is more tenuous. Big-box bookstores prefer more space than the 16,000 square feet Struever can offer them in Canton. He says he'll continue to look for an independent bookseller, "even though they're rare." In the meantime, Struever says he's looking at three retail proposals for the bookstore's space, and a fourth plan for a high-tech center that sources familiar with Can Company business dealings say will be connected to Hewlett-Packard. The city's annual fall book fair, which benefited from Bibelot's involvement and sponsorship, will find others to fill the void, says Tracy Baskerville, spokesperson for the Baltimore Office of Promotions.
Meanwhile, in the black book at Timonium, a poet named either "Joan" or "Juan"--the signature isn't clear--weighs in with her/his final thoughts on the chain's demise, invoking the specter of another local institution that died before his time.
Creditors came tap-tap-tapping at their door,
Greed took the money offshore,
Now Bibelot must close its doors,
And be opened, nevermore
I'll miss you.
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