Generally, I am not a big fan of surprises. As a child, I was even known to try to guess what a particular present under the Christmas tree was by feeling it to see how much it weighed. (Not something my parents approved of as you can imagine.) This past Friday I had one of those experiences that only be properly described by one of my favorite lines from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation movie- “I could not have been more surprised if I had woken up and found my head stapled to the carpet.”
Charlie Hurd, Kevin Walker and I had driven down to our Center City store to deliver their quarterly Sunday school material. As we parked, I took a quick look across the street and saw what appeared to be a new bookstore. As I looked closer, I realized that it really was a bookstore and that it must have just opened in the last couple of months. Given the economy, the state of independent book-selling and the eclectic nature of the shops on Chestnut street, this seemed nothing short of astounding. I had to get a closer look and did so after helping to lug the Sunday school material into the basement of our store just four doors down.
As it turns out this store was set up by the Friends of the Free Library and is based completely on donations. It was neatly laid out with simple but attractive fixtures and clear signage. They even had a small table on the sidewalk already and were mentioning a big sale coming up next weekend. All books are sold at a deep discount “as is” and the profits from the store go to help the Free Library of Philadelphia. The store manager, John, was a refugee from the Barnes & Noble/ Borders world of book retailing and seemed to love what he was doing. He already knew some of his customers by name as was busy helping one with her donation when I arrived.
After exchanging greetings, we began talking about the current state of the book store retailing business and he made an interesting statement. John said that the people he knows at both Barnes & Noble and Borders believe that independent bookstores and small chains are the future of book retailing. He said that his “insider” friends (some of whom he used to work with) are convinced that the inflexibility built into the corporate models of these two book retailing giants will ultimately be their Achilles heel. The small independent store can make changes more quickly and respond the needs of the local community in ways that big stores can’t. As if finding this new store wasn’t a big enough revelation for the day; hearing this fresh opinion on the future of independent book retail certainly caught me by surprise (especially given the source of the information).
As I watched people come and go from the store, I asked John how his customer traffic had been so far. He said that he had experienced steady and growing business from the day that they had opened the store and that it was better than he had hoped for. This model of doing book retailing was a breath of fresh air for me at a time that some prognosticators are predicting the closing of all independent book retailers, especially Christian bookstores. So what makes this store model work and what are the potential take aways for other similar retailers like us:
1. Simplicity – no fancy displays and complicated store layout. The basic deal was easy to understand – great bargains, no returns and the adventure of finding the perfect used book.
2. Knowledgeable and caring staff – the two team members that I observed were warm and friendly. They clearly loved books and people and were willing to go the extra mile like carrying books for people across the busy Chestnut Street.
3. Deep connection to the community – books supplied and bought by people you might actually know, access to your neighbor’s library for all you know and best of all, the profits go to the local library system. What’s not to love?
These are all traits that we in the Christian book retailing world can and should emulate (well maybe not giving all of the profits to the local library, but maybe some could go to a worthy local charity). In the end maybe the store around the corner will really defeat the “big, bad” chain store and Chestnut Street will become Bookstore Row.