Independent bookstores were headed for extinction; much in the way family-owned hardware stores vanished as home-improvement giant Home Depot captured market share. When Amazon.com filled an Internet niche, the way in which readers approached bookstores changed forever. Neighborhood bookstores had more to worry about than industry mogul bookstores like "Barnes & Noble," or "Borders."
Six years after Amazon.com launched, and after giant bookstores followed suit, it now seems that the smaller independent bookstores enjoy a resurgence, due (some feel) to the public’s change in attitude after 9-11. Loyalty online is a difficult variable to the equation, and large retailers, as any shopper knows, employ staff who do not stay.
|“I think that most people prefer to shop at smaller stores, whether it’s for books or tires,” Mary Gay Shipley -- Blytheville, AR|
“I definitely see a change in consumer attitude,” says Harris Healy, III of Logos bookstore in Manhattan. “Customers want the smaller store and the personal service that comes with it. Before the September 11 attacks, it seemed that the majority of consumers were drawn to big, bigger, biggest. Now, they seem to like wandering around a store and buying from people they know, people who know the products they sell,” Healy said.
Logos' bookstores are independently operated as an association rather than a franchise, specializing in Christian books. Healy has been with Logos for 18 years, six of those spent as the store’s lead salesman, the past 12 years as store owner. Healy’s store is a bit different, catering to the more serious and secular tastes of "CUPIES" (Christian Urban Professionals).
“There are big Christian bookstores our customers could shop at, but they come here,” Healy said. “They could also buy online, but that’s so impersonal and they want the personal contact. We have a book club that meets here, a weekly ‘childrens hour’ and an attitude that welcomes people to come in and browse or just chat [in person].” Visit Logos Manhattan
Like Healy, Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, AR, doesn’t seem overly concerned about competition from the big chains or Amazon.com. Blytheville is a small town and the only local competition comes from supermarket chains with book sections and other shops specializing in books, videos, and music. On the other hand, metropolitan Memphis, TN, is only an hour’s drive away and offers bookstores, as well as a vast array of entertainment attractions, department stores, a riverwalk and restaurants, all of which could draw Blytheville residents.
“The people who want to shop at the big stores are going to shop there, period,” Shipley said. “But the big stores just don’t have customer loyalty and that’s what keeps small stores alive.”
Shipley should know. While Blytheville residents may drive across state lines to shop at deparmtment stores in Tennessee, Shipley says some of her customers drive to Blytheville from Memphis and beyond to buy books from her store. That Bookstore also enjoys the loyalty of writers like John Grisham and Hillary Clinton, who arrange special book signings at That Bookstore.
Shipley's store, located in Northeastern Arkansas on the Mississippi River, is a cozy setting for a steady stream of popular authors who bring customers back for signings. The personal service and attention customers received from Shipley's staff is also key to customer loylaty, she said.
“I think that most people prefer to shop at smaller stores, whether it’s for books or tires,” Shipley said. “They know they can ask questions and they’ll be answered by someone who knows the product. They don’t get that feeling from a big store, where salespeople aren’t knowledgeable and might be there one week and gone the next.”
A strong Internet presence is necessary in our economic environment. That Bookstore's virtual shop attempts to capture Shipley's real storefront's homey, welcoming atomsphere. Shipley keeps her website updated frequently with book news, and her monthly newsletter keeps customers abreast of book releases and upcoming author signings. Web users may also purchase books from That Bookstore's website.
“I absolutely agree that a successful independent bookstore needs a great web site, one that draws potential buyers as much as the store does,” maintains Chris Ohman, who has spent the last decade at the 30 year old Boulder Bookstore in Boulder, CO. “It’s just one of the personal touches that keeps people coming in and coming back.”
While Boulder is more of a college town than a business city or river town like Manhattan or Blytheville, Ohman’s store faces stiff competition with Borders and Barnes & Noble, in addition to other book shops in Denver, less than an hour away. Instead of feeling hot breath, he feels the fresh breeze of longtime customers and new ones alike.
“Let’s face it, the big guys can offer those discounts and we can’t compete head-to-head that way,” Ohman said. “But for someone who is a real book buyer, we’re the best buy in town. Our frequent buyer club is much less expensive than the one Barnes & Noble offers and our customers are more discerning than someone who just pops in a store or goes online to buy the latest best seller.”
Staying alive is one thing, but staying in business is another. For these three independent bookstores and others throughout the United States, success is all about bringing customers back. Building loyalty comes from an emphasis on exceptional customer service. Whether it’s a good web site, a monthly newsletter, or hosting book club meetings, the personal touch offered by independent bookstores keeps customers coming back, or to paraphrase a literary tale, puts David on equal footing with Goliath.