Friday, March 15, 2013

Can Small Town America Support Bookstores? An Owner’s Tale

Philip White
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Philip White signing copies of his book,
Our Supreme Task, at Well Read, March 2012
The commonly accepted narrative about bookstores is that they’re doomed. People simply won’t go to bricks-and-mortar spaces to buy hardbacks and softcovers when they can pull up a web browser, click or tap a couple of times, and boom! Either an e-book is on their screen or that supposedly archaic bundle of paper is on its way.

But while certain undeniable facts—the closing of Borders and the rise of Amazon as the alpha dog in the bookselling industry among them—prove this impression to be true-ish, there are other signs that cast doubt on it. Some of these are factual and some anecdotal. In the case of the latter, Half Price Books is always jam packed when I go into one of the four Kansas City locations to buy more books I probably don’t need. Also, I recently read The Atlantic’s feature on Ann Patchett, who is not only bankrolling a bookstore in Nashville but also got a spot on the Colbert Report because of it. (I’m not jealous, honest. OK, yeah I am.) Third, I have spoken in four independent bookstores in the past few months and at all but one of my other events (libraries, community groups, etc.) indies provided the books. 

The most recent of my bookstore talks was at Well Read in Fulton, Missouri, a two-story brick building on the very parade route that Winston Churchill took hours before he introduced the world to the terms “iron curtain” (he didn’t invent but popularized it) and “special relationship” in March 1946. Until last year, the store was somewhat disorganized, did little to no marketing and didn’t offer a space for reading or book events. All that has changed since Brian and Danielle Warren took over. I grabbed a few minutes with Brian to talk about book curating, the joy of sifting through boxes of old history books, and why two young, intelligent people took over a used bookshop in a small Midwestern town. 

What is your background? 

Danielle and I met in San Francisco and were both in the technology business for many years. She’s from Jefferson City [Missouri] and we moved back in May 2012 to change our lifestyle. 
A Well Read cat


How did you find out about the bookstore opportunity? 

The Fulton Sun ran a clever story in July last year, in which the first line read, “Kathryn Wade is selling a cat for $25,000.” My wife loves cats, so that got her hooked right away. We were looking to start or take over a business and as we both love books, it just seemed perfect. 

What have you done to change the store? 

We completely re-designed it—everything from the logo and branding to re-working the physical space. Now there’s a reading area and event space on the second floor, and we offer coffee and free wi-fi. For the first time, the store has a social media presence. We also focused on our collection—going through all the old stock and adding a new books section. It’s been a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too. 

Were you concerned by the huge challenges facing traditional bookshops? 

The big national chains obviously had a failed model, and they were buying with a national focus instead of thinking about what local people would want. That’s why we’re down to Barnes & Noble. There’s still a desire for printed books, and the bookstore can play an important role in local communities. 

Do you see yourself as a curator of books? And why do people want this? 

It’s certainly an important part of it as people want recommendations and online stores don’t always do a good job of that. That’s a little more prevalent among older people who are used to being served, to having a more personal shopping experience. But then a lot of our younger customers also seem ready to listen to our suggestions. As well as catering to the tastes of the Fulton community, Danielle and I get the chance to reflect our own tastes and choices. I’m an avid history reader and am reviewing books for the Fulton Sun, so that’s a nice tie in. 

The bookselling business, like most areas of retail, is dominated by price. How do you compete without the buying power of the online giants? 

We’re not interested in competing on price. We have a small but carefully selected group of new books, so getting our buying right is essential. We also do a lot of special orders for things that we don’t have on the shelves. People have responded well since we opened in October. We get a lot of students in from Westminster College and William Woods [University], and everyone seems to like the upstairs space. It’s nice that they can come in, grab a cup of coffee, and go and read in peace. And if they want to get online they can do that too.  We’ve just started an author events program and are looking forward to welcoming more writers.

Related posts of interest: 

Randall Stephens, "Larry McMurtry on Books and Collecting," August 3, 201

Philip White, "Think Borders Is Going Down the Tubes Because of e-Books? Not So Fast," February 17, 2011

Randall Stephens, "Boston's Best Bookstore," December 21, 2010

5 comments:

dan allosso said...

It's great that they're making progress, and the "place for social book-interest" angle is brilliant. A physical "Goodreads" and a location for "Meetups" that even loosely have to do with reading is something I think might do well in my small town.

That said, the immediacy of ebooks is hard to fight. I find myself buying more than half of the stuff I get nowadays on my Kindle, and I think on its launch yesterday, my book sold as many Kindle copies as physical. Quality used books might be a way to go...most of the physical books I buy these days are used, through Abe. Is there a way for local bookstores to get involved in this profitably?

hcr said...

I hear horrible things about the loss of local bookstores, too, but my two-- Bookends in Winchester, MA, and Maine Coast Bookshop in Damariscotta, Maine, are always packed. And I go there if at all possible. Great suggestions, great selection. Glad to hear that things are going well for Well Read.

And, fwiw, for chain stores, we're down to one B&N a few towns over (we've lost all the local Borders stores). It too, is always packed-- as in six people deep at the checkout-- and it's my sense that it has gotten way more full, not less, since the advent of on-line stores.

I wonder if there's a multiplier effect: that is, that since its so easy to get on-line books, people are reading more, which in turn gets them into bookstores.

But I'm a historian and not an economist!

Rhy Hall said...

Fulton needed Brian and Danielle!! Well Read has brought a new feeling of modern design, interesting selections and creative conversations adding a raised atmosphere to the heart of our block.

Gabriel Loiacono said...

Interesting post! My favorite local bookstore in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, has a great atmosphere, and is connected to a great coffee shop. Its small selection of new books, especially in nonfiction, is really hard for me, though.

As a result, I am willing to drive 30 minutes to go to the (reduced but still extensive selection of) B&N as well, just to browse. If I find a book there, I tend to buy it there, in recognition of their service in having it on the shelf. (After all, they need my custom too, or else they might go the way of Borders.)

I buy all my books in print form and (except out-of-print) from a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. This is only because I know how valuable the experience of shelf-browsing is for me.

Tim Peterson said...

Thank you Philip for posting, thank you Brian and Danielle for offering "you" and your wonderful bookstore to Fulton, and to quote hcr,

"... And, fwiw, for chain stores, we're down to one B&N a few towns over (we've lost all the local Borders stores). It too, is always packed-- as in six people deep at the checkout-- and it's my sense that it has gotten way more full, not less, since the advent of on-line stores.

I wonder if there's a multiplier effect: that is, that since its so easy to get on-line books, people are reading more, which in turn gets them into bookstores ..."

I have the joy of partnering with Brian and Danielle with a local marketing effort. I have to say that they are "the goods"! Smart, caring, brave and a breath of fresh air in our community!