Novel Ideas For Indie Bookstores

Bookstores won't die, but business models are changing.

<a href=Dana Brigham at her Massachusetts bookstore, tending the garden of a dead-tree industry." />
Dana Brigham at her Massachusetts bookstore, tending the garden of a dead-tree industry. | Photo by Guido Vitti

In April, Borders* said its restructuring plan included bigger cafes and more novelty products. In other words, fewer books. A shift is also happening with independent bookstores—400 of which opened in the past six years—but instead of sidelining books, they're finding new ways to promote them. Here are some of their best strategies.

1 Cluster Products

At Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts, "we try to have everybody buy a book and something else," says co-owner Dana Brigham. So a third of the floor space gets ceded to products that complement nearby books: spatulas and wine stoppers next to cookbooks, say, or vases and floral stationery in the gardening section.
The Payoff: The store's traffic is up about 7% within the past year, Brigham says.

2 Act Locally

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, casts itself as a hub of ideas—not just books—by hosting Thacker Mountain Radio, a sort of A Prairie Home Companion, on local radio. (The live audience of about 170 crams between bookshelves.) And if anyone within a mile of city limits wants a book, employees bring it to them in person. "Amazon brags about how fast they can get books to you, but we can get ours out faster," says owner Richard Howorth.
The Payoff: Impossible to quantify but customer loyalty has strengthened.

3 Be A Printing Press

"We wanted to give Village Books a new face," says co-owner Chuck Robinson. So in 2009 the Bellingham, Washington, store leased an Espresso Book Machine, which can print a 200-page, professional-looking book in 10 minutes. The store now produces out-of-print books for customers and lets self-published authors host readings and print their work on the spot.
The Payoff: The machine cost $75,000, and the store is on track to break even within two years.

4 Help the Competition

Earlier this year, Subterranean Books in St. Louis nearly closed. To save it, four nearby stores formed the Independent Bookstore Alliance. The group is now 12 h2 and takes turns hosting big events such as speed-dating nights for bibliophiles and a "technology petting zoo" where customers can play around with e-readers (then learn how to order Google e-books through Alliance members).
The Payoff: Subterranean Books survived. Others report increased sales. And their combined power helped the smaller stores build once-impossible relationships with big publishing houses.

5 Broadcast Events

Beginning this month, BookCourt in Brooklyn, New York, will stream in-store readings live on its website, bookcourt.tv. Viewers can get their books signed and mailed to them. "We want people watching in Minnesota to feel that they're at the event—or even people in Manhattan who don't want to come down to Brooklyn," says manager Zack Zook.
The Payoff: Too soon to say, but the store's schedule makes for active TV. It hosts up to eight readings a week.

Follow this writer @propjen and @fastcompany on Twitter.

*After our September issue went to press, Borders announced it is going out of business.

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