SCARBOROUGH — Brett Wickard jokes that it won’t be long until his 10-store chain, Bull Moose, begins selling buggy whips and oil lamps.

On Nov. 13, the Bull Moose store in Scarborough will add new and used books – the old-fashioned, paper kind – to its diverse inventory of compact discs, vinyl records, video games, DVDs and accessories.

Though Wickard is optimistic, others question his strategy, at a time when book sales are flat nationally, electronic books are gaining market share and booksellers nationwide – including those in Portland – are struggling.

Wickard, 41, launched Bull Moose with borrowed money in 1989, while he was a student at Bowdoin College. Today, the company has stores in Maine and New Hampshire, 125 employees and revenue in the “eight figure” range.

Wickard said the company’s 2010 revenue is “crushing” that of 2009, Bull Moose’s best year. He said one-third of the revenue is from sales of used items.

Wickard said Bull Moose stopped expanding during the pre-recession economic boom, which allowed it to save the money it is now using to expand.

This week, construction workers are busy renovating 3,000 square feet of retail space adjacent to Bull Moose’s 10,000-square-foot-store on Payne Road.

The addition will house 20,000 books, a selection that Wickard said will be larger than most independent booksellers’ and near the inventory of national chain stores.

Other retailers’ prices are too high, said Wickard, who expects to sell new books at a discount of as much as 35 percent.

Wickard said thorough market research, including a test at his Bangor store, preceded the expansion plan. And he said Bull Moose is backed by sophisticated pricing and inventory software.

Also, Bull Moose sells its products on Amazon’s online Marketplace, which provides access to a worldwide market.

Wickard said online transactions account for 10 percent to 25 percent of the company’s sales.

Still, insiders say, making money by selling books at steep discounts is difficult.

Chris Bowe, part owner of Longfellow Books on Monument Way in Portland, said receiving, shipping, categorizing and shelving books is costly and labor-intensive.

“It’s not something I would tread into lightly,” Bowe said.

He said even major chain stores have stopped offering steep discounts, and national retailers including Barnes & Noble and Borders Direct have closed stores in recent years as profits have dwindled.

All bookstores face pressure from so-called ebooks – books that are downloaded and viewed on electronic devices like Amazon’s Kindle.

According to the Association of American Publishers, ebooks accounted for 8.3 percent of total book sales in the first six months of 2010, up from just 3.3 percent in 2009.

Longfellow Books has been in Portland for a decade, and Bowe said he and his business partner have 50 years of book selling experience. “Good luck,” he said to his new competition.

Some Bull Moose customers welcomed the news.

“I just noticed. It’s not a bad idea,” said Joseph Lolio, 27, of Portland, while shopping Tuesday for a DVD of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” (“It’s for my wife,” he said.)

Lolio said Bull Moose tends to sell products cheaper than its competitors do. “And the used items are in pretty good shape.”

“It will probably keep me in the store for another 45 minutes,” said Chris Robertson, 45, who hosts the “Maine Blues Project” radio show on WBLM.

Wickard said Bull Moose has no immediate plans to sell books at stores other than the one in Scarborough. He said, however, that the company is in a “growth phase.”

Some Portland-area residents question whether downtown Portland’s market could handle another book retailer.

Holly Alvino, 42, a Bull Moose customer, said she fears that Longfellow Books and Casablanca Comics will suffer if Bull Moose sells books at its Portland store.

She also questioned whether a new player would survive downtown. “The competition is already entrenched,” she said.

Joe Soley, the owner of what was called Emerson Books on Exchange Street, said 25 years ago there were seven bookstores downtown. Today, only a few remain.

Books Etc. closed its Exchange Street location in 2009, though its Falmouth store remains open.

Cunningham Books on State Street will close Oct. 30. Cunningham’s longtime owner, Nancy Grayson, said the move isn’t related to economic challenges.

The future is uncertain for Soley’s shop, which he has owned for 18 years.

Just days ago, Thomas and Mary Emerson, who ran the store for years, stepped down. On Monday, Soley took the reins, calling the store Books Books Books.

“We are a dying breed,” he said. “At the moment, sales are brisk. I don’t know if it will be that way in February.”

 

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]