Town Center Booksellers and Colorado Baggage both closing

by Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
By the end of the month a bookstore in Basalt and a luggage store in Aspen will be gone, victims of changes in the economy and the buying habits of their customers.

Town Center Booksellers on Midland Avenue in Basalt will close on March 29 after operating for four-and-a-half years, according to general manager Fred Durham.

“The average profit margin for books is about 2 percent and that doesn’t leave you a lot of room once you get into the red,” Durham said.

And Colorado Baggage on Galena Street in Aspen will also shut its doors by the end of the month, said Tom Nelson, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Denver-based Colorado Bag’n Baggage.

“We really went from a great profitable store to a store projected to lose over $200,000 in six months,” Nelson said.

Colorado Baggage has been in business in Aspen since 2005 after the company bought The Baggage Claim from Karen and Kent Woodard, who operated the store in town for 27 years.

Colorado Baggage has 34 other stores, including nine in Colorado. But the Aspen store is the first to close.

“I don’t know who isn’t coming to town anymore,” Nelson said. “We just know there are less buyers spending less dollars per transaction.”

The closure of the bookstore and the luggage store are coming after business owners and managers at both operations took a hard look at the future and decided that an economic turnaround was just too far down the road.

“The operating theory is that ‘cash is king’ and you only have so much cash,” Nelson said.

For Town Center Booksellers, the store closing is the end of a romantic notion for owner and founder Louise Bennett and her husband Clay Bennett. The couple own the building on Midland Avenue where the bookstore is located and they thought the town and midvalley would benefit from an independent bookstore.

“We have thoroughly enjoyed our relationship with the bookstore and the literary community of the Roaring Fork Valley,” said Louise Bennett in a prepared statement. “We want to thank our patrons as well as the many authors and distinguished guests who made appearances and presentations at the store through the years.”

Louise Gaylord Bennett is part of the Gaylord family of Oklahoma, which owns the Oklahoma Publishing Co. Her husband, Clay Bennett, owns the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA basketball team, which used to play in Seattle as the SuperSonics.

Oklahoma Publishing owns The Oklahoman newspaper and other media properties in Oklahoma as well as the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. The company also owned the Hotel Jerome in Aspen for almost two years. It paid $33.7 million for the hotel in February 2005 and sold it for $52 million in May 2007.

Durham said the Bennetts looked down the road at the challenges facing both newspapers and independent bookstores and decided to close up shop in Basalt.

“When you have to write a check every month to make something work, you begin to say ‘Now wait a minute,’” said Durham.

Durham said that the bookstore was holding its own until last fall when consumers put their wallets away, but it was already being hurt by new products like Kindle, a wireless reading device, and a missing generation of hardcover book buyers.

“There is a whole generation coming up that is taking their information from a different medium than a bound book,” Durham said.

At Colorado Baggage, it was a similar story of changes in both the marketplace and the economy.

Airlines dramatically raised fees on extra bags, making luggage a liability. And high gas prices further slowed travel plans. And then the economy froze.

“Is a piece of luggage the first thing on your list of things to buy right now?” Nelson asked. “If you have an old duffle bag right now, it could be what we call your ‘get-by’ luggage until it breaks.”

And so business at Colorado Baggage is way off.

“The store is literally at half the volume it was,” Nelson said. “We have very reasonable rent for Aspen and it is still not enough.”

The bookstore in Basalt has three full-time employees, including Durham, and seven part-time employees.

“We want to thank Fred Durham and the entire professional staff at the store,” said Clay Bennett. “They are all first-class, lovely people committed to the treasure of the written word. Fred has been an extraordinary leader and dear friend and has represented our interest with integrity and dignity from start to finish. We wish them all our very best.”

But reality was on the shelf at the bookstore on Monday.

“We need jobs,” said one employee.

The luggage store has five employees, including two who have been with the store since it was The Baggage Claim.

It is not known yet what, if anything, might replace the bookstore and the baggage store in their locations.

Louise Bennett urged book lovers to look to other sources.

“We want to send our best wishes to Sam and Cheryl Wyly for continued success with Explore Booksellers and Bistro in Aspen and ask our friends and customers to support them in every way possible,” Bennett said. “In addition, we are very pleased that the literary needs of the Basalt community and all valley residents will be well served by the new Basalt Public Library.”

The new 20,000-square-foot library in Basalt is expected to be open by December 2009 or January 2010.

If there is a silver lining to the two store closures, it is that local residents  planning off-season vacations will find deals through March on both books and baggage as the stores sell their remaining inventory at discount prices.