It’s a tough time to own a bookstore, and an ever tougher time to open a new one. Mark Hennessey knows that firsthand as owner of Santa Monica art and architecture bookstore Hennessey + Ingalls.
He has seen highs and lows running the family business, but never anything like the double whammy of the recession and devastating competition from online discount booksellers.
What’s more, the company had an ill-timed expansion last year, opening a second location in a trendy Hollywood retail development. As a result, the company lost money for the first time ever in 2008 – a far cry from the boom days of 2005 when architects busy with multiple commissions didn’t think twice about plunking down $1,000 to buy a handful of the latest design books. Hennessey + Ingalls grossed $4 million that year.
“I don’t know if it will ever come to where it was in 2005,” said the 58-year-old Hennessey, who started work in the family business after graduating from college in 1972. “I think people will change their buying habits.”
But Hennessey + Ingalls does have history on its side.
The business is built on the experience of Hennessey’s father, Reginald, head of acquisitions for the USC library’s special collections in the 1950s and 1960s. The elder Hennessey, who died in 1981, traveled the world in search of interesting books. While on his journeys to Europe and Asia, he would buy some books for himself. His wife, Helen, soon grew tired of the collection crowding their home and asked that he sell some.
Decades later, the family runs one of the country’s most respected art and architecture bookstores. It also has a small publishing arm, which typically puts out a couple of titles a year. The three-generation family company is now run by Mark Hennessey, and his son, Brett, 29.
The father and son are hoping to ride out the storm with a relatively simple plan that includes improving marketing to existing customers and boosting online sales. They also are counting on the good will of customers such as noted L.A. Angeles architect Leo Marmol, who tries to patronize the store even as he takes advantage of online discounters.
“They are an important resource and we all have a real obligation to support those resources in a time like this,” Marmol said. “There is something about having the experience of browsing books and discovering something in a bookstore.”
Reginald Hennessey opened his first store in 1974 and moved a handful of times over the years before settling on a location in the Third Street Promenade in 1983. The store would occupy the space for two decades until moving to its current location at 214 Wilshire Blvd. in 2003. (Partner David Ingalls was bought out in 1992.)
The trouble for the business started in September 2008 when the economic slowdown reduced both foot traffic and customers’ buying behavior. Sales have been off 25 percent to 30 percent since then.
“You could see there were more employees in the store than customers,” Mark Hennessey said. “It’s this whole thing where customers come in, take notes and buy it on Amazon for 20 percent off with no shipping fees or tax. It just kills us.”
Los Angeles, like other cities, has seen its local independent bookstores dwindle as online retailers and chain stores offer books at prices that the independents can’t match. In the last few years, Dutton’s, an L.A. icon, closed two stores.
But, it does help that Hennessey + Ingalls has long been a resource in Los Angeles for the entertainment industry, artists and architecture firms. Marmol’s company, for example, has a library of about 5,000 books, most of which were purchased there. In fact, there are fewer than 10 stores nationwide that can compete with the breadth and size of Hennessey + Ingalls’ inventory, according to those in the industry.
“It is literally legendary. I don’t know of another store like that, certainly in America,” said David Lopez, vice president of Gingko Press Inc., a Berkeley-based publisher of architecture, photography and graphic design books.
Still, in a sign of the times, one of Hennessey + Ingalls’ few national competitors, Prairie Avenue Bookshop of Chicago, closed just last month.
But Hennessey + Ingalls has a plan to escape its competitor’s fate. First, it hopes to boost Web site sales from about 10 percent to 20 percent of the business’s total annual sales.
The online campaign is being run by Brett Hennessey, who graduated from Loyola Marymount University in 2002 with a degree in finance. He entered the family business after leaving a job as a financial adviser.
At first, he only planned to help open the new store, but then he noticed some deficiencies in the family operation. It had no computerized book database or Web site, which he set about creating at a cost of $65,000.
“I don’t know how they survived so long doing it in their head. But that’s also what makes our employees, my grandmother, my father so great,” Brett Hennessey said. “They physically had to know what was in their inventory every day.”
To boost online sales, Hennessey + Ingalls last year started a mailing list, which has grown to about 11,000 subscribers who have signed up either in store or online. The company sends out an e-mail every week or so about online-only deals and some in-store special events, such as book signings.
“I can tell on weeks when I do an e-mail, that day and even two days after will result in 20 to 30 percent more traffic to the Web site,” Brett Hennessey said.
Also, the business two months ago started selling books through AbeBooks, a large online bookseller that has Hennessey + Ingalls’ entire inventory on its site. AbeBooks takes a percentage of every sale, but Brett Hennessey said he doesn’t mind given the site’s hundreds of thousands of viewers. He also plans to explore other online sales partnerships.
As for the Hollywood store, Hennessey + Ingalls will continue to hit longtime customers with a recently started direct-mail campaign to ensure they know about the store, which opened in November at the new Space 15 Twenty retail complex at 1520 N. Cahuenga Blvd. The store is much smaller than the Santa Monica location and stocks books catering to the Hollywood scene, emphasizing film and graphic design.
The mail campaign is targeted at any community that ends in the word “canyon” – such as the artsy enclaves of Topanga Canyon and Beachwood Canyon. Many of those customers, Hennessey + Ingalls’ bread and butter, haven’t been hit as hard by the recession.
However, opening the store just as the global recession went into high gear has been tough.
“In hindsight – probably not a good idea,” Mark Hennessy said. “The store has some good days, some mediocre days and some disastrous days.”
However, both father and son believe that both the new store and the business will survive. In fact, Mark Hennessey predicts it all should turn around by the third quarter of next year.
“I think we will still be around,” he said.
Hennessey + Ingalls Inc.
Core Business: Seller of new and old books on fine arts, architecture, photography, landscaping, and graphic and interior design
Employees: 10 in Santa Monica, four in Hollywood (compared with 16 in Santa
Monica, four in Hollywood in 2008).
Goal: To boost sales at its Hollywood store and Santa Monica stores through additional direct-mail and online marketing
The Numbers: The business lost money for the first time in 2008 and since then sales are down 30 percent