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Litchfield Books: Small store speaks volumes in the publishing world

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The newest novel by Dorothea Benton Frank, one of the Lowcountry’s favorite authors, hits book stores on Tuesday and, once again, Frank is spending the day of the release in the Pawleys Island area.

A special Moveable Feast is set for June 12 at Austin’s Ocean One. Frank will discuss the book, “Porch Lights,” and answer questions from the audience. Then she’ll move to Litchfield Books for a signing.

“Porch Lights” returns readers to Sullivans Island, where Frank grew up, and tells the story of a nurse returning from the Iraq War.

In the quaint coastal community, with its colorful local characters and lore, she rediscovers herself after tragedy and finds love and purpose with the help of her son and aging mother. It’s vintage Frank and a perfect example of why so many readers in the Lowcountry adore her.

Frank has said on multiple occasions she looks forward to her trips to Pawleys Island and has found friends in Tom Warner and Vicki Crafton, the owners of Litchfield Books. The couple has even shown up in one or two of Frank’s novels.

But there are more practical reasons for Frank to launch her books on the Waccamaw Neck — reasons that have to do with sales and book lists, according to Warner.

The little book store in the Litchfield Landing shopping center has quite a bit of pull in the publishing world.

“If you look at the sum of the Southeast we’re — believe it or not — one of the largest independent book stores left. And we’re easily the largest in South Carolina,” Warner explained. “There’s one in Charlotte and one in Raleigh that are bigger, but we’re a fairly large account to many of these publishers as far as an individual store is concerned.”

That’s one of the reasons Litchfield Books is able to pull in well-known — and sometimes downright famous — authors for signings, the weekly Moveable Feast and other events.

Pat Conroy, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks and Elizabeth Gilbert have visited the area thanks to Litchfield Books, and Paula Dean came up to promote one of her cookbooks. Mary Kay Andrews, David Baldacci, Kim Edwards and Sarah Addison Allen are among those who have participated in the Moveable Feast. Jeff Shaara will be the speaker at the Moveable Feast on Friday, and Maryann McFadden, Robert Leleux and Leila Meacham are on the list for events this summer.

A former teacher who lives in San Antonio, Texas, Meacham will be promoting her second novel, “Tumbleweeds.” When her first book, “Roses,” was released, Litchfield Books sold more than 500 copies between the hard cover and paperback editions.

“The girls up front all read it and loved it, and it became a fixture on our favorites table,” Warner said.

The book was published by a subsidiary of Hatchette Book Group and the store’s Hatchette representative remarked several times to Warner that Litchfield Books sold more copies of “Roses” than any other independent book store. So as the tour for Meacham’s new book neared, her publicist contacted Warner and asked if he’d like to have Meacham stop in the Pawleys Island area.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. It’s more often Warner who contacts the publishing house. He has contacts in all six of the major publishing houses.

“Over the last 12 years I’ve come to know many of the people there, particularly the higher up ones because the lower level people change so often.

“I’ve made three trips in the last 10 years to all the major publishers in New York. I’ve sat with them and met with groups of 15 or 20 publicists and told them about Litchfield Books, and the Moveable Feast and how it came about, so when I call or send them an e-mail, they know who we are. Most book stores don’t do that, but I guess because of our business background we aren’t afraid to.”

Before going into the book business, Warner was president of specialty products at Graniteville Mills, a textile company near Augusta, Ga. He was later in charge of all their products except for apparel fabrics. Crafton worked across the river at Augusta Sportswear.

When Warner had a heart attack in 1998, they retired to the Pawleys Island area and started their own textile company, selling fabric to different companies.

Then in 2000 they bought the book store from their friends, Carolyn and Dean Berry, who started the business, and Warner decided to get out of the textile business and devote his full attention to Litchfield Books.

“I love the book business. It’s pure white as the driven snow compared to the textile world, which is very cut-throat, nasty and highly competitive,” Warner said. “The book business is tough, but for none of the reasons having to do with the caliber and integrity of the people in it. The challenge for us is the new technologies that exist for customers to order their own books directly either through Amazon or one of the new devices. Kindles and Nooks have definitely impacted our business.”

However, the consumers’ jump to e-books “seems to have sort of leveled off,” Warner said. “Most of the people who are into that and want to have that gadgetry already have it. They’re not selling to legions of new people, but it’s frustrating, not so much as a sense of the existence of these devices, but the lack of awareness that so many people have.”

When they download e-books or buy traditional books online, readers don’t get the kind of personalized service they find at local book stores. The solution some of them have come up with is to buy their books online, but go to Litchfield Books first and pick the brains of the staff there, taking up their time asking about new authors, book recommendations and such. But they spend their money elsewhere to get a cheaper product.

“It’s a hard thing to swallow sometimes,” Warner said. “It’s pretty easy to spot when that’s what people are doing. They’ve even asked to borrow a pen and paper so they can make notes. They just need to be aware that the time will come when we’re not here and many other smaller independent businesses aren’t here, because the same thing happens at the small dress shop and any other local store.”

Litchfield Books has had to grow in other areas, such as cards and gift items, to compensate.

Not only is Litchfield Books one of the best selling independent book stores in the region, it’s also a reporting store for the New York Times Bestsellers list and Nielsen BookScan. That too makes the store an appealing place for authors to promote their books, especially in the first days after a new release.

Of course, authors want to make various bestsellers lists and selling as many books as they can as quickly as possible at stores that provide reporting figures is part of doing that.

Warner uses an inventory control system to keep up with sales to the exact number and at the end of the week, he electronically sends information on every sale to be compiled in various lists.

Warner said he doesn’t expect there are any other reporting stores in the state.

“It becomes a matter of logic” for authors, such as Frank, to go to Litchfield Books, Warner explained. There’s no store like Litchfield Books in Charleston and “we’re at the epicenter of what she’s writing about.”

Added to that, Warner markets author events at his store, something chain stores don’t do.

“She’s going to sell more of her books here than anywhere else,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

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