Monday, December 9, 2013 - 05
Staying Alive in a Digital World: A Talk With an Indie Bookstore Owner
All book-lovers know the digital revolution is having an impact on
independent bookstores. Except for Barnes & Noble, the chains are
gone. Fewer and fewer independent bookstores have survived the onslaught
of online retailing. I thought it would be illuminating to talk with
Annie Philbrick, co-owner of the Bank Square Bookstore, an independent
business located in Mystic Connecticut.
Despite enormous competition from online retailers, and though the
store was closed for weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Bank
Square Book Store has remained a vital resource for book lovers in the
community. Annie provides insight about her strategies for surviving,
and, in fact, thriving, and talks about the state of retail book-selling
How important is it to handpick your staff?
It's vitally important. I handpick the books that I think will do
well, and so does our children's books buyer. We work very hard at
curating the titles in our store. We know our customers and what they
want. We have our "Staff Picks" where each staff member has a shelf with
carefully selected books -- ones they're excited about. Our customers
tell us frequently: "I look for your Staff Picks."
Do any staff members have a specific genre expertise?
Yes. We have one staff member who loves thrillers. One is very into
science fiction. When we hired him last spring, I noticed the science
fiction sales were increasing. I think a lot of that had to do with
Jack's knowledge of science fiction, and his relating to our customers.
Some of us read fiction; others read strictly non-fiction. We have an
employee who's been with us for years and is a bike-rider; he
concentrates on those kinds of books. So, each shelf of the "Staff
Picks" is very different.
How many different books are on your shelves at any given time?
There are about 15,000 to 20,000 books on our shelves. We have approximately 4,800 square feet of retail apace.
How long will a book remain on your shelves before it's returned to the distributor?
We tend to have a six months return schedule. If a book is on the
shelves for longer than that, we try to get it returned. That's not the
case with every book, but once in a while you have to make room for new
books and return those that haven't sold. We like to give books as long a
shelf life as we can; but of course, unlike an online seller, we need
some turnover to keep things profitable.
Most of us are familiar with show-rooming: Where someone
comes into a retail store, browses, and then goes home and orders the
item online. How do you deal with that?
It was more of an issue some years ago when the growth of e-books was
escalating quickly. Some people are more obvious about that than
others. I may approach someone and have a conversation if it becomes
clear that's what's going on. First, I'll ask if I can help them. I may
have to remind someone that we're here as real people providing customer
service. I try to keep them aware they're in a brick-and-mortar
independent bookstore. Only today, I noticed a man with a cookbook and a
cell phone. I wasn't certain, but it appeared he was copying recipes
with his camera. I offered him assistance, which was a subtle reminder
that we are where you discover these books, and hope you will repay us
by purchasing a book. I have to be somewhat careful with the
conversation, so as not to alienate someone.
Do you encourage browsers to sit in the shop and read? Do you have some comfortable chairs?
That's an important part of our environment. We have chairs with
specific lighting throughout the store. We really encourage sitting and
reading. We have WiFi. Mystic's a small tourist town, especially in the
summer and fall. People can come if they need a place to sit and do some
work on their tablet or laptop -- answer e-mails or whatever they need
to do. We have a comfortable couch in the middle of the children's
section where parents and kids can sit and read together.
Have you found it necessary to expand your non-book items: things like stationary and greeting cards?
Yes, but we're very particular about the non-book gift items we bring
in. We try to keep them as book-related as possible. It's part of the
impulse-buy shopping experience for some customers. One reason we've
increased those items is a few stores nearby have closed, and we're a
vibrant store. So we've picked up some of those lines. People have
actually asked us to carry those kinds of items because they could no
longer get them at the other stores. We're also careful not to carry the
exact line the store down the street is carrying.
So you have to be both community-friendly and consumer/user friendly.
Exactly. We have to try to satisfy all parties.
Let's talk about community outreach. I've been to your
website, so I know the answers to some of these questions. Do you have
author readings and book signings?
Yes. Most Saturdays we have book signings, sometimes with a local
author or a children's author. We also have an author luncheon series
which allows for a more intimate experience, as opposed to an author
just coming in and reading a chapter and signing some books. It runs
from noon to 1:30. The ticket for the lunch is the purchase of the book.
The customer enjoys a nice lunch from a small deli in Mystic, gets the
book and has the opportunity to talk with the author. They're
wonderfully intimate experiences. We also do off-site events -- as an
example, we arranged to have the novelist, Wally Lamb, come to the Otis
Library in Norwich, which is where he grew up. That was very popular. We
do that sort of outreach frequently.
Do you sell or rent e-books?
Yes. We're part of the Indie Commerce site with the American
Booksellers Association. We offer Kobo e-readers. We have a Kobo logo on
our website through which you can enter and purchase e-books. The book
is bought through us from Kobo, and we get a certain percentage of those
Do you sell Kobo e-readers at the store?
Yes. The product changes periodically, but we have a display for the Kobo e-reader in the store.
I know you've signed a lease for the empty space immediately next door. What will you do with it?
It's another 1,800 square feet of retail space with an upstairs event
area for author readings. We decided to expand the non-fiction section
into the new space, and enlarge the kids' section in the original store.
Speaking of kids, do you encourage children's events?
Very much so. We often do events with local elementary schools.
Teachers will come in and buy individual gift cards for the kids, and
then come in with the children and each one can shop with his or her
gift card. We're hoping to do a Christmas event with a Giving Tree. We
have stars on the tree, each one having a disadvantaged child's name on
it, given to us by a church or neighborhood center. A customer will buy a
book for a child; we'll wrap it and have those children come to the
store for a Christmas event where they unwrap their presents.
I know you use social media. You have a web site, a blog and you contact customers by e-mail. Tell me about that.
We do almost everything by e-mail. We don't do much print mailing
because it's so expensive. A few times a year, we'll mail out postcards
thanking our top hundred customers for shopping with us. We'll include
with that, a ten percent coupon. We send out an e-blast every Wednesday,
listing our events or book news. We're working on one now about gift
items for Christmas. We have a large retirement community here, so we're
designing one for grandparents saying: "If you give us a list of your
grandchildren and their reading interests, we'll hand-pick those books
and wrap them for the kids." All our events are posted on Facebook,
which is connected to our Twitter account; the blog is also connected to
the Twitter account. All our staff members are welcome to post
book-related things on our site. It's become a major part of our
Speaking of media, you have something called "Book Talk Nation" on your website. Tell me about that.
"Book Talk Nation" grew out of the Author's Guild. It's a way of
bringing authors into a conversation with listeners. It happens at 7:00
p.m. You can dial into a "Book Talk Nation" site, and do either a
Google hangout or a video chat. I watched one where Ian Frazier was
being interviewed. The talk is usually sponsored by a bookstore such as
ours. If The Bank Square Bookstore sponsors a talk, the author comes to
our store to sign the books. We can also link the talk to our website,
even if we're not the sponsor. We then get a certain percentage of those
A recent trend in bookstores is the presence of a small café or coffee shop, if space permits. What about that?
That was one of the first questions a customer asked when we signed a
lease for the space next door. In our small town, there's a coffee shop
directly across the street and there's another one nearby. So we have
to be careful not to step on people's toes.
On a more general level, what do you see as the future of retail book-selling?
Here in Mystic, we're sort of an anchor store in the middle of town.
When we expanded into the space next door, the entire town was excited
about it. People came into the store and congratulated us. It was very
After Sandy hit and you were closed for a while, did people in Mystic help out?
We created a Sandy Donate Relief button through Pay Pal on our
website, and raised about $10,000 from customers and authors all over
the world. It certainly made a difference because we had no income at
the time. Through Facebook and Twitter, we put out a call to the
community, which was an enormous help to us. People showed up with mops
and rags. We never could have gotten back on our feet without the
community's help. And we never could have expanded into the new space
without the support of our community. People would say: "This is where
I'm going to come to do my Christmas shopping." I think with the closure
of Borders and the other chain stores, people have realized if they
don't shop locally or support small shops, they could very well not be here.
Then you see the future for your brick-and-mortar retail bookstore as a bright one.
Yes. I think so. Mystic is a destination for many people. And many of
them realize that within that destination is a wonderful, independent
bookstore. That pertains to local customers and those who are
travelling. Even people with e-readers sometimes want a real book. They
will say: "I want a real book to give as a gift," or, "I just want a
real book to read, to hold in my hand."
I don't have a crystal ball, and there's no doubt the rise of e-books
has had an impact. They're not going to go away, and we do have a
partnership that works. It's very hard work to do what we do, but we do
it because we're passionate about books and love what we're doing.
So to stay alive in the digital world, you've adapted your
business model: Use social media and online resources, give people
personalized service, make recommendations, arrange events and have
remained a vital part of the community.
One last question, Annie. It has nothing to do with indie
bookstores, but I always ask this kind of thing. If you could have any
five writers on a panel discussing the craft of writing and books, who
would they be?
If I go through all of literature I would choose Walt Whitman, Mark
Twain, Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Mayakovsky and M.K. Fisher. Can you
imagine what a discussion they would have?
Mark Rubinstein is the author of Mad Dog House and Love gone Mad.