How my Bookshop Plans to Survive e-Books

E-books scare me.

electronic readers comparedI have shot upright out of a dead sleep no less than two times, bathed in a light sweat with the thought, “E-books are going to ruin me!” running through my head. I’ve heard the rumblings of e-books, news of hipsters riding the subway in New York all reading their kindles, but until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t actually seen the beasts in person myself and consequently, started having nightmares. It’s all just a concept until you call a customer about a request and hear, “Actually, I have an e-book now, so you can delete all my requests,” or see a 45 year old woman in a tea shop in my small town reading The Grapes of Wrath on her kindle while eating a chocolate chip cookie. Part of me wants to sidle up to her and ask how it feels to be dancing with the devil, and know that there is the danger of becoming (even more) cynical about kindles and the like if I’m not careful. I care deeply about my 14 staff members, the legacy that my father started with this bookstore 20 years ago, and my investment of time and life energy, and I will not go down without a fight! In fact, I intend to not go down at all.

I’ve tried in vain to carry kobo, to have e-books in our store in general, but to date there is no licensing for small independent Canadian booksellers to sell e-books themselves

  • they’re only too happy to have me refer customers for a piddly percentage, but I have to admit I’m not really into that idea. I’ve spent hours researching, calling, and getting rather frustrated, enjoying some comic relief watching 10 Rounds of Books vs Kindle with Green Apple books with Round 10 being my particular favourite:

Funny videos and stories of nightmares aside, the truth is that the cold reality of e-books is here. I’ve decided that instead of join ‘em, I’m going to do by best to beat ‘em. I have never given in easily to the status quo – pictures of me and my shaved head at environmental protests when I’m 15 could prove that in a heartbeat, so why start now?

How will we do this, in our small town bookstores? I believe that by diversifying, and providing an outstanding customer experience, we will continue to keep people coming through our doors and buying those antiquated old things known as….. books.

Diversify how? I’ve been diversifying our shop for over a year now, and have been seeing strong sales with everything that I have chosen. Whenever I choose a sideline, I keep in mind that we are a BOOK store – I’m not going to start selling charm bracelets and cat scratching posts, but bookmarks? Absolutely! Book lights? Yes! And yes to literary themed t-shirts, small bookshelves that my husband handmakes, miniature book earrings and necklaces, bookplates. I’ve even had a local teashop brew me a “Book Man Blend” and a “Reader’s Rooibos” that are designed to perfect accentuate a book. That one was a bit of a stretch for us, but we still managed to sell out of our tea TWICE over the Christmas holidays. We’ve also recently started carrying journals and I continue to be shocked at how many we sell on a weekly basis. I’ve also had book bags made for our store complete with our logo on one side and “I love reading” on the other. My only indulgence into non-booky things was when I bizarrely sold six sock monkeys that were hand made by a young woman who applied at our store with a resume attached to a one of these itchy primates, complete with reading glasses and a small book. I didn’t end up hiring her, but her monkeys are moving well.

I splurge on a satellite radio connection that allows me to choose between different soothing and relaxing playlists of songs – no commercials, stations aptly named “Breathe” “Aura” and “Ensemble.” I have a bookstore cat, and a beautiful children’s section with little chairs and a toy box. I’ve created spots around the store where people can sit and relax in a chair next to a lap. In short, I am doing what no kindle can – provide an EXPERIENCE for my customer that is almost as good as the books that they’re about to read. I throw customer appreciation events where I turn the store into a giant party with free chair massages, cake, tea, origami lessons, puppet shows, Christmas caroling, read-a-longs for families, author events and art presentations.
I work on merchandising, fun displays, culling my stock to keep it fresh and interesting, and have unique and interesting bookmarks that I give out with each book. I, and my staff work on doing these things WELL, on providing outstanding customer service, and continually improving what we do every day.

I also do everything in my power to generate excitement and interest about books in children in my community – involving myself in local literacy initiatives, and starting a “free book giveaway” where we donate hundreds of books to local schools. We encourage teachers to bring their students down for “field trips” to our shop, and give talks on literacy to highschool students. I’m currently working with a local television station and a local literacy group to start up literacy programming that will air once a week. These are our future customers, and if they create a bond with physical books we postpone the reality of a digital future for a little longer.

I believe that people LOVE bookstores. That the movement of society towards an insular, lonely experience of downloading books will not appeal to everyone. I also know that even without the generous trading credits at our store that we allow, buying books is much more affordable than buying e-books, even without the startup cost of an e-reader considered.

All my positivism aside, I’m not naïve; I know that there is a change coming, and all the more reason for me to brace myself, pad out my store with things that cannot be replaced by e-readers, and hone my customer experience and community involvement so that my store can continue to be a wonderful fixture of knowledge, literature, and potential adventures. Now I’m tackling the logistics of the potential of including a coffee shop/ café with a friend who has managed and run cafes successfully for almost a decade.

We are all successful in our businesses for different reasons, and different things drive us.
I believe that sticking to those core values, and diversifying in ways that make sense to each of us will shelter us from the oncoming digital age. Perhaps I’m naïve, but my sales figures from December were my best ever, and I’m sticking to those facts as I push ahead with my newly tweaked business model. Nope, I’m not going to join ‘em, I’m going to beat ‘em in my own small town way, and continue to show people that bookstores are a wonderful place to spend time, and money!

Amber Short
The Book Man

1 thought on “How my Bookshop Plans to Survive e-Books”

  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! You make me want to stand up and cheer! But it would compromise the sanctuary we’ve created here in the store – which is especially cozy this chilly morning in South Carolina. And I don’t want to distract the customers from their milling about, touching the spines of the books, flipping through the pages, sitting down and actually reading a bit before making a purchase…oh, yeah – BROWSING! I’ve browsed on an e-reader – not so much fun.

    So, let me just say I am in total agreement with you – we’ve always carried booklights, bookmarks, bookholders, greeting cards…and because we are a tourist destination, we also carry SC themed merchandise. Laminated folding seashell & bird guides, Palmetto (our state tree) bookends, etc. This is a nice boost to our daily totals. And because I know my customer base, I carry a small selection of new books that I know I can recommend and sell. Mainly fiction about the lowcountry. Diversification has been good for us.

    Presence in the community? Hadn’t looked at literacy initiatives, but what a great thought. Putting that on the to-do. We’ve partnered with the local high school to carry the reading list books as well – which the AP & honors kids are required to buy. We offer them at a discount, and are about to institute a buyback program (if they don’t want to keep for personal library 😉 ) that will give them “bucks” to use towards the purchase of more new books. Hoping that will get the books back in circulation, so we’ll have more of those titles used. (We don’t currently buy books, just trade credit).

    I could go on and on, but I see one of my regulars pulling in to the parking lot, and I’ve got a couple of new authors set aside to recommend to him, based on my knowledge of his very distinct tastes!!

    Oh, and ps: Our sales were up 18% last year! It was our best year yet! Maybe we’re both naive, but I’ll take those figures and forge ahead!

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