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Ritzy reading: Tampa bookstore aims for upscale buyers

Perhaps Tampa’s most upscale bookstore is about to go even more upscale.

The Oxford Exchange book shop on Kennedy Boulevard is clearing out half the store’s inventory and will soon devote fully half its floor space to books that cost upwards of $200 as part of a partnership with the luxury publishing house Rizzoli International Publications Inc.

In some ways, the deal is akin to a department store like Nordstrom’s deciding to devote a patch of the store to one brand like Gucci or Louis Vuitton – a store within a store – in this case books from one publisher. A growing number of bookstores are signing up for similar projects as they search for new ideas to survive and thrive in a book market dominated by online discounters like Amazon.

“These are beautiful books not just to keep in your library, but to put on your coffee table, almost as a statement of who you are,” said Jess English, director of retail for the Oxford Exchange. “The retail world has become a place where everyone is experimenting, and you just have to play off that, or you’ll go the way of so many bookstores that closed down.”

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Based in Italy, Rizzoli publishes about 300 new titles a year, with the bulk of them in the coffee-table format and priced at $65 on average, though many titles sell for much more. For instance, there’s a photo montage book about the fashion designer Tom Ford that retails for $135, and a similar book on the fashion house Dolce & Gabana priced at $200. Many editions are hefty enough to come in their own decorative boxes.

“The thing about these coffee-table style books is you want to physically have them in your hand to appreciate what they are,” said Jessica Knapp, a spokeswoman for Rizzoli in New York. “That’s not quite possible online … The Oxford Exchange has a strong appeal for the Rizzoli customer base. It’s a true lifestyle store – café, shop, restaurant – and the shopper coming in is of a certain sophistication level, looking for a certain aesthetic.”

Though particularly petite at about 1,200 square feet, the Oxford Exchange book shop ranks as one of the most talked-about bookstores in the area, and a local example of a national trend: The bookstores that are thriving aren’t huge. They’re specialized or quirky or based on a theme.

The American Booksellers Association says its ranks of independent book shop locations hit a low of 1,600 in 2009 but has rebounded to 2,094 as of this May, the first time since 2005 that the ABA listed more than 2,000 locations, while overall bookstore sales have started growing again.

In the case of the Oxford Exchange, the shop is devoted to books as treasured objects, bought by book lovers who appreciate a fine hardback or want a first edition to give as a gift – not just something to get at a lower price on Amazon. Last holiday season, the store went so far as to commission its own special “Jane Eyre” edition in fine leather-wrapped hardback. It retailed for $75.

The adjacent Oxford Exchange retail shop already sells many high-end style books alongside things like silver tea sets and bow tie collections. The Taschen publishing group title “Paris: Hotels, Restaurants & Shops” sells for $40. The Assouline publishing group title “Oscar de la Renta” sells for $125.

“And they sell, quite well,” said Allison Casper Adams, who co-owns the Oxford Exchange with her brother Blake. Allowing Rizzoli to essentially take up half the bookstore is an experiment, she said, but worth the venture.

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Tampa Bay has seen its share of bookstores close. Borders bookstore sites essentially evaporated when that brand merged with Barnes & Noble. The Inkwood Books shop still operates on South Armenia Avenue, and downtown still has the Old Tampa Book Co. But not counting stores like Target and Walmart that stock first-run books, the downtown area has just one large bookstore left: The Barnes & Noble on Dale Mabry near Kennedy Boulevard.

Meanwhile, the online book giant Amazon has gained enough heft in the marketplace that it regularly spars with even large publishers over terms, and will relegate publishers such as Hachette to the virtual back aisles by not allowing customers to pre-order them. That can affect whether a title appears on best-seller lists. This past week, a similar dispute spilled into the public between Amazon and Disney over movie titles.

For its part, Rizzoli ranks as a singular and increasingly rare breed in the book market. The publishing house ran its own bookstore on 57th Street in Manhattan for decades – one of the last publishers to run its own shop. The vaulted-ceiling space was cherished in New York by book lovers, though the store is now moving to a new site as the building was recently bought by condo developers.

This last May, an executive of Rizzoli, Ausbert de Arce, visited the Oxford Exchange on a tour through Florida, having heard about the store through Manhattan’s retail circles. After a lunch at the adjacent restaurant, he suggested a partnership. Rizzoli was launching new “Studio” sites at bookstores like Miami’s Books & Books, and the Oxford Exchange looked like a good candidate.

The Oxford staff would still manage the space, employ the workers and handle inventory. Rizzoli in turn would make a broad range of their titles available and put the Oxford high on the list for visits by prominent authors for book signings and cocktail receptions.

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That fits with another trend in the overall retail marketplace: Cultivating a sense of membership among customers, particularly through special events. (The Oxford Exchange regularly holds parties and special events, particularly for those who pay for a membership to the upstairs Commerce Club.)

Going beyond the Rizzoli deal, the Oxford Exchange is branching out to reach true book lovers in other ways. This January, the store will launch a “First Editions Club,” where customers can sign up to receive author-signed first editions of select books as they hit the market. The bookstore staff will seek out titles they think people will look back on as watershed moments in literature, or simply books that could be solid investments. For instance, a signed-first edition of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” now trades for $1,000 on the open market.

As for whether the Rizzoli partnership prospers in the future, only time will tell, English said, and it’s fine with experimenting. “This whole concept of the Oxford Exchange didn’t really come from market research,” she said. “We just picked things we personally liked and thought other people might like, too.”

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