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Reading A Market

This bookseller figured out how to survive in the land of the giants: Find a niche and hit it hard.

The war was raging on between retail superstore book chains and the nation's small, independent booksellers. And though they waged valiant battles to survive, most independents were dropping like flies. In reality, it was hardly a battle at all. The out-gunned independents were posing no contest for the superstores' massive power to offer large-volume savings and huge selections of book titles to their customers. But buoyed by a sense of mission, entrepreneur Sherry McGee was unfazed by the odds--and in 1996, she dove headfirst into the fray.

McGee, 41, is the founder of Apple Book Center, an upscale, multicultural bookstore that has charmed residents of Detroit. McGee and her loyal customers agree it's more than a bookstore. Apple Book Center is a widely heralded neighborhood hangout where multiple generations form a base of repeat customers--and whose second-year sales rang in at $1 million plus.

How did McGee, a former sales and marketing executive in the staffing industry, find the gumption needed to jump into a field most of today's entrepreneurs fear to tread? "I [simply] saw a void," she says, downplaying the guts it took for her to enter the land of such giants as Borders and Barnes & Noble. The void she saw was in the urban ethnic marketplace.

"It started on a very personal note when I attended a seminar for minority business execs. The speaker closed by saying that as a culture, African Americans have to start reading more. I started paying attention to reading statistics and the urban marketplace--and [learned that] lower scores on standardized tests are directly attributable to a lack of regular reading in the home," says McGee. "It just got in my heart from there."

It doesn't just take a village, McGee realized; it takes a village bookstore. "[Once] I could see something was missing in our community," she says, "I decided to put my skills and my own money on the line to make it happen."

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This article was originally published in the July 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Reading A Market.

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