My Unsolicited, Entirely Unproven Thoughts on Running a Bookstore

All my life, I’ve loved bookstores. I love the atmosphere they can create – one of exploration and possibility. I love working my way through a A – Z by author shelf and learning about authors I’ve never heard of, or a particularly robust genre section within the store: be it science fiction, true crime, film, or architecture.

As a young person, I spent countless afternoons perusing the magazine racks, new releases, and the literature sections of my local big-box Borders, and still make a point to visit and patronize independent and interesting bookstores in cities and towns that I visit in the United States and abroad. My love of bookstores is the primary reason that I decided to jump into the world of publishing in the first place, an industry that I now find myself intellectually, if not physically tied to for the rest of my life.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, this is why I’m incredibly dismayed with the current state of the American bookstore. While the Pew Institute has affirmed that reading / book consumption has (surprisingly) remained unchanged over the past 10 years, the way that we buy books undoubtedly has.

Percent of U.S. adults who in the previous year have.

pew_research_booksSource: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Media Trends, April 17, 2018

In that span, we’ve seen the bankruptcy of Borders, and the slow, painful decline of Barnes & Noble, who has changed their leadership, corporate strategy, and concept countless times as their stock price continues to plummet. In their latest strategic ploy, Barnes & Noble plans to reduce their book inventory by 50% in favor of a restaurant/bistro called B&N Kitchen, after already having fired 1,800 employees (and 781 long-tenured, book-loving full-timers). As large bookstore chains go, there appears to be some hope in the US expansion of the Canadian chain Indigo Books, but their ambitions in the US remain small for the moment. And then there’s the new Amazon bookstores, popping up around the country in carefully selected areas likely determined by a computer algorithm factoring in affluence (concentration of rich zip codes), intellect (on/or near a College campus), and other demographic or Amazon purchasing data that I’m too afraid to think about.

Select independent bookstores have remained mostly resilient, propped up by the communities invested in their existence. And while there has been some isolated success stories, including McNally Jackson (whose new Williamsburg location is amongst the most beautiful I’ve ever seen), Bookpeople, and Politics & Prose, the fact is that nearly all independent bookstores are struggling to remain profitable (or even viable) as they continue to battle consolidating and/or failing book distributors who are squeezing margins, and the continued and inescapable threat of Amazon.

And though books have become a small part of Amazon’s plans for global domination, consumers have become conditioned to the 40%+ discounts on most new releases (as well as the ubiquitous $0.01 book for the price conscious). In addition, Amazon’s e-Commerce physical book sales continue to grow, and they’ve grown into near-monopolies in the eBook and audiobook space due to a strong first-mover advantage, overly ambitious ideas followed by half-hearted execution by competing tech players (Apple, Google), and missteps by our perennial punching bag, Barnes & Noble.

This brings us to where we’re at today: how can an independent bookstore, or more quixotically, the sad sack with a pile of cash (aka me, minus the pile of cash) who wants to start his own bookstore from scratch, have any hope, or a blueprint for success? Here are some of my entirely untested and unsolicited thoughts, which were jump-started by last week’s ‘weekly thoughts’ post by Chenmark Capital’s Trish Higgins, as well as her linking to the words and research of HBS Professor Ryan L. Raffelli and SmallBizLabs:

 

Community / Local Investment:

While not quite guilt, I think one of the most powerful forces that draws customers into a business is a sense of personal investment in the business’ success. Think about that artist / musician / author who you loved before ‘they made it big,’ or the pizza place that you find yourself returning to each time you’re home. These are people, places, and things that you’ve developed an emotional connection and continued loyalty to over time, and that you’re willing to disproportionately contribute to in order to ensure their continued success or sustenance.

To me, developing this type of connection with the community that you’ve planted your flag in is part-and-parcel of any small business in the age of Amazon, but especially a bookstore, where, as opposed to a slice of pizza or tickets to a movie theater, there is easily accessible, almost “perfect” pricing several taps away. By pure logic, no one, except for those that are so insatiable that they can’t wait two days for (slightly) delayed gratification, would opt to spend 20%+ more at a local bookshop. I don’t care how much money you make – money isn’t infinite, and there are useful things that we could spend those $7 on.

Therefore, the challenge becomes how to develop that connection between your consumers and your store to ensure that they will go out of their way, or spend the additional premium, to patronize your store. Without decades and generations of community residents to stand behind, in this day and age this isn’t something that you can leave to the sands of time, or allow this connection to evolve naturally. There is no choice: you have to get involved, and establish yourself as a fixture in your community.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for getting involved, and each street/town/city is different, common threads include taking an active role in helping to build, grow, and organize the community, developing partnerships and actively patronizing other small businesses in the area, and looking for any and all opportunities to insert yourself into the community in any positive way: be it a book drive, place for after-school studies, or opening up your storefront for community meetings or discussions. In my mind, the more local, the better. This includes devoting some amount of retail space to a “local” section, that would be dedicated to local interests, local authors, or any other quirks associated with the region.

 

Events

Along these lines, an increasingly common denominator of successful bookstores seems to be a successful and well-oiled ability to host events. While you may not be able to score Hillary Clinton or James Comey on their barnstorming tours of Barnes & Nobles, I think there should be a strong effort made to curate and host engaging, interesting events by using the space that you already have at your disposal in your store (maybe with a lectern and chairs, at worst a projector). On the other hand, this means not striking a balance and not saying yes to any local, self-published author (though I have a very weak spot for such authors, my grandfather included.)

Politics and Prose seems to be the standard bearer for a local, independent bookstore that carefully curates its schedule of events. A look at its detailed event list, and you’ll see a mixture of college professors, mediaites, novelists, nonfiction authors, and hucksters/politicians scheduled for one-hour slots, most of which are conveniently scheduled for after-work hours or weekend afternoons. In Philadelphia, the Free Library takes on the role of primary events host, as there is no book store equipped to handle the medium-sized crowds that many book-touring authors draw (opportunity…). Oftentimes, the authors (and their publisher’s publicity directors) are eager for the attention and exposure, and the book sales driven by the events are often a win-win for the author and the store. This could also include kids’ events, which should likely be confined to the pre-lunch hours (potentially driving coffee / cafe sales?). Though on the other hand…

 

Curation / Discovery

I think one of the failures of many shiny, new bookstores eagerly buying several years of brand new inventory from eager distributors is their desire to do-it-all: be the cookbook store, the politics store, the arts and crafts store, the children’s book store. Unfortunately, the one thing that you’re not is the Everything Store, which is why you you can’t be all things to all people. This means having to choose, drawing a line in the sand of the types of books you will and won’t buy, and running the risk of sometimes making the wrong choice. Fortunately, a cursory look at NYTimes’ Bestsellers list should give you a running start, which provides a survey of a wide swath of bookselling retailers, online and off.

While I’m not advocating to limit yourself to a single genre, I believe there’s nothing worse than being forced to let down a paying, but “divinely discontent” customer (as described by Jeff Bezos’ in his most recent annual letter) with the news that you don’t have their desired book in stock. Setting those expectations to the consumer ahead of time is important – no store could reasonably be expected to carry every backlist (or even recently-published) title.

This is where active curation comes in. Presumably, one runs / or works in a bookstore because you are passionate about books, and more often than not eats/sleeps/breathes books. One of the first sections that I stop in at the Strand is the Staff Picks section, which includes about 40 books hand-selected by the Strand’s staff of aspiring and surviving writers, intellectuals, and book lovers. More often than not, I’m enticed enough by one of the handwritten recommendation notecards that accompany the books to pick one of them up.

As mentioned in a recent post, bookstores (along with record stores and video rental shops) have long served as places where passionate employees help customer ‘discover’ new books, authors and genres by providing tailored advice to interested customers based on their existing likes and dislikes, and recommendations to parents, friends, and relatives looking for gifts.

In my mind, this is another strong differentiator – an actively curated inventory is one of the main reasons to patronize a bookstore. I continue to be enticed by the draw of the ‘next book’ – the one that will connect the dots, solidify my artistic sensibilities, and remain influential and top of mind for years to come. And then, I’m just as hunger for the next book, the one that will enthrall me, and keep me up an extra 15-60 minutes before bed. Given the millennia of books put onto paper over the course of human history, there’s a good chance that there’s more than a lifetime’s worth of these types of books, to be recommended to you by smarter- and more cultured-than-you staff, and waiting for you to be bought, read, and critiqued / discussed. Sure, there are limits to staff snobbery, but I believe there’s nothing wrong with having opinions about the art and media that you spend your time consuming, as long as the store is an inviting, nonjudgmental, egalitarian place.

 

Atmosphere

This is the hardest one to put into words, as well as the hardest to consciously create. As per author Chuck Wendig’s useful review, even with more than $20 billion of cash on hand and no shortage of genius minds devoting to the objective of creating the perfect, 21st century bookstore, Amazon’s bookstores still have a sterile feel, like a model house that isn’t meant to be moved into.

Per Wendig:

all told, there’s something icy and inert about the store. It didn’t really make me want to buy any books? It had that Silicon Valley vibe to it, a too-clean, tech-industry standoffishness. The staff stayed off in corners, talking to one another. The selection was sadly slim and if they had a big space (similar to the old Atlantic Book Warehouses) it might feel like more of a fun shopping experience instead of a sterile book boutique. I didn’t hate it, but didn’t love it. It felt more like an augmented reality experience of a bookstore than an actual bookstore.

Unfortunately, never having run a bookstore myself, I’m hard-pressed to offer any linchpin or ‘must-haves’ (this is where you probably realize that you should have stopped reading paragraphs ago.) At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I do think that creating the ideal atmosphere comes from a combination of demonstrated passion for running an independent bookstore, and a level of pride behind the work you put in. This means making sure that the books are pristine (making it even harder to run a quality used book store), the shop floor is neat (though I have no clue how one possibly conquers the ever-generating mountain of dust), and the staff is kind and attentive (without being overbearing). Maybe a bit of nice music.

I do believe in the future of the American bookstore, and try and put my dollars behind the experience behind it whenever possible. If nothing else, I hope that by reading this post, you are inspired to visit your local bookstore (or local library) the next time you’re in need of a new read.

And please feel free to spout off and tell me how naive, misguided, or disillusioned I am in the comments, or reach out to me directly.

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