By guest blogger Alvina Lopez
After a quiet period we are more than glad to invite you to read the next contribution by another guest blogger to our series about independent bookselling. The following article has been submitted by Alvina Lopez, who has decided to offer her point of view of the possibilities and opportunities available to the owners of indie bookstores, which would enable them to strengthen their position in the local community. Alvina is not directly involved in the bookselling business, she mainly writes on the topics of accredited online colleges. This has enabled her to approach the topic from a different, fresh angle, which gives the whole article a rather optimistic feel. Alvina’s stream of inspirational ideas is a proof that with enough motivation, energy and a positive approach, independent bookstores – or small independent businesses in general – do posses a certain competitive advantage, which they can use against the raw power and size of huge corporations
Even though indie bookshops are on the decline, the dream of opening an independent bookshop is still a real passion for book junkies. Getting to select titles, share favorite stories with customers, and cultivate a real reading community within a neighborhood like Meg Ryan's Kathleen Kelly in You've Got Mail or your own hometown bookshop owner that you remember from your childhood. In your ideal bookshop, you could pick a theme -- like selling sci-fi books only or children's and young adult books -- but still have a varied customer base.
In reality, that dream is becoming harder and harder to achieve in any real tangible, profitable way. First, major book selling chains like Barnes & Noble offered one-stop shopping for families and students, and popped up all over cities. But now even those large corporations are feeling threatened because of the economy -- more customers are revisiting the library -- and because of the ease of online shopping from sites like Amazon.com. If you want your bookstore to survive the recession and the take-over of online and corporate booksellers, you've got to learn how to expand your influence so that you and your store are a truly integral part of your community. It's not enough to have a band of a hundred or so loyal customers: you need city-wide appeal and a business plan that helps support the local economy, not just the other way around.
Bookstores like Book People in Austin, TX, Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, WA, and The Strand in New York City, have all mastered the art of business branding and turned their stores into local treasures, hotspots, and even nationally recognized tourist destinations. The key to capturing and encouraging sincere indie bookstore spirit is to create a wholly cohesive mood or theme in your store. Depending on your personality, the books you sell, your location -- either geographic or building-wise -- and/or your customers, you'll want to develop your own subculture that gives visitors to your store an entire experience beyond just shopping for books. You don't have to be flashy or conforming: in fact, the most successful indie bookstores rely on their own quirks and history for their foundation. For example, the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, CO, now has three locations that attract major celebrities like Tobias Wolff, Amy Tan and Frank McCourt, but is still known as a cozy spot to hunt for books, curl up on a sofa, or even read the paper. Kramerbooks and Afterwords in Washington, D.C. is a "cultural landmark," according to its website, and it's just as much a popular brunch spot and after-work bar as it is a bookstore. From your store's design and layout to the employees you hire to the selection of books you sell (and how you display them) to the events and people you bring into the store, your individual dynamic is the most important factor in branding and marketing, and thus your longevity.
Once you've evaluated your store's character, you should look for ways to bring in more customers so that they can meet you and experience your store's charm. So-called "in-house" projects that you can pursue could include weekly book clubs or discussion groups. Some bookstores choose to officiate book clubs and publicize reading lists by e-mail or by posting them in the store and discounting books. Or, you can encourage existing book clubs to use your store for their meeting space, and even allow them to bring in refreshments. Give them a discount if they buy their books from you. Similarly, invite other kinds of community groups -- like city activists, animal rights groups or philosophy students -- to hold meetings and discussions in your bookstore. If you have a separate meeting room, you can reserve it for them, or just set up chairs in a certain area of your store. Your willingness to host clubs and groups is a quick and easy way to get bodies into your store and cement your role as a generous, community-minded patron.
Live readings are another popular project that indie booksellers like to promote. Even if you're not of the same caliber bookstore as the Tattered Cover Bookstore, you can invite local literary figures, journalists, actors, students, teachers and members of the general public to give readings of their own work or of more famous, published work. You can serve snacks and drinks or invite another local business -- like a neighboring cafe -- to help you sponsor the event. The more businesses and professionals you incorporate into live events at the store, the more opportunity you'll have for cross-promotion, community involvement and publicity. And once you've established your store as the go-to spot for readings and literary discussion, higher-profile writers and speakers who visit your town will be more willing to accept an invitation to hold a meeting or lecture sponsored by you, especially if they're looking to display their own grassroots character.
To reach out to more customers in your city after hours, set up a website. Share hours and location information, of course, but also upload a few photographs of the store and of your employees, write a brief history of you and your store, and explain the types of books, newspapers, plays, and other reading material you have to sell. Once you've developed a basic website, feel free to add an events calendar sharing book club information, live events postings, discounts, holiday hours and events, and special visitors. A podcast or regularly updated blog will also let customers behind-the-scenes and make them feel more personally invested and interested in your store's own little ecosystem. If you're able to support it, experiment with selling some books -- new titles for example -- online to enhance sales and engage visitors on your website. If you want to design promotional items like coffee mugs, bookmarks, t-shirts or note cards with your logo on them, you can advertise and sell these on your website, in addition to keeping them in the store.
To get more business during the holidays or even during off months, try organizing themed weekends. You can decorate the store accordingly and select appropriate books to sell at a discount. For example, during the Fourth of July, you can discount president's biographies and serve apple pie and lemonade during the afternoons. For the release of a popular new book in a series, invite customers to come dressed up as their favorite character and serve food and drinks that correspond to the theme of the book, like martinis and champagne for a new chick lit release.
And while you ideally want customers to come into your store to buy books full-price, everything that you discount or do for free helps branding and business, too. One Saturday every quarter you could host a book swap and let readers donate books for points, and then "shop" from the books that others in the swap brought in. Anything that's left over you can keep to sell at a discount or give to charity. Other in-house projects include bake sales, children's reading time, or holiday parties.
After taking the time to build up your store's dynamic and attract customers to the store, it's time to branch out and expand your influence beyond your career as a bookseller. If you want to be known as an influential community leader, you will have to invest more time networking with other businesses. Libraries, schools, colleges and other bookstores are great places to start, especially if you have a common cause to support like better funding for schools, Read Across America or the preservation of your city's historic district. City book drives for schools or the homeless shelter are also positive ways to bring attention to your store's involvement in the community, and you can volunteer your store as a drop-off location for the book drive or any other toy, clothing or food drive that's going on in the city. Participation in these types of events usually rewards you with logo promotion on the news, t-shirts and in the newspaper, too.
Communicate with art galleries, theaters and independent cinemas to host panel discussions and art festivals. Anything that you can do to support your community's economy and enrich its own indie spirit and unique character will be appreciated. You and your store will also enjoy increased publicity and more positive association corporate booksellers can claim. If you spend the time to cultivate a meaningful relationship with your customers and city, you'll become a well-respected, influential member of your community, as well as a profitable bookseller.
1. The Red Wheelbarrow in Paris (Bookstore Guide archive)
3. The Red Wheelbarrow in Paris (Bookstore Guide archive)
More articles from this series:
Literaturhaus: Books, Words and Much Much More
An Interview with an Antiquarian Bookseller: The Caretaker
Independent Booksellers: What Can Be Done to Help?
Chain Bookstores: The Rise, Struggle and Downfall?
Independent Booksellers and the Fixed Book Price: a Horror Story?
Independent Bookstores in Danger of Extinction – Who is to Blame?
An Insight into the Current State of Independent Bookselling – An Introduction
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