Who would open something as likely to fail as a bookstore smack in the middle of one of the most coveted retail strips in the startup capital of the world? At a time when bookstores across the country are struggling to stay in business or scrambling to adapt their business models, the arrival earlier this year of the LegalForce BookFlip store on University Avenue in Palo Alto could easily be looked at as something somewhere between an oddball gamble and serious folly.
Good thing the store’s founder Raj Abhyanker is peddling more than books. Along with some 2,000 volumes that range from New York Times best-sellers to self-help titles, from magazines to children’s books, the three-story, 8,000-square-foot venue also sells Google Nexus tablets and basic legal counsel from its on-staff attorneys at a rate of $45 for 15 minutes. Other reasons to go include classes and workshops addressing a wide swath of topics, from Pinterest for seniors to legal seminars, as well as computer stations for DIY legal research and seats for reading and flipping through books. If it succeeds, it's a concept that could start popping up in other cities.
"We’re changing the way people access law," says Abhyanker, a U.S. patent attorney and the founder and CEO of LegalForce, formerly Trademarkia, a privately funded legal services web company that counts 1.8 million unique visitors and processes over 1,000 trademark requests each month and brought in $7.3 million in revenue last year. The retail store is part of the company’s rebranding, an effort in the works for the past year.
With its walk-ins-welcome business model, BookFlip aims to make it possible for people to obtain legal advice quickly: An attorney is present during business hours and individual appointments can be made via tablet. The counsel that attorney can provide is, admittedly, limited. For complicated or beyond-the-basics advice, BookFlip’s attorney can help clients set up an appointment with a lawyer who specializes in what they need. But Abhyanker says that most people need the kind of standard legal advice that any attorney who’s passed the California Bar Exam should be able to provide.
"The vast majority of questions people have are very basic," he says.
To get answers to those questions, meetings take place away from the main retail floor, a creamsicle-orange-and-white expanse with modern desks and streamlined shelves bearing an aesthetic that’s closer to an Apple store than any law office.
The pairing of books and quick counsel may seem incongruous, but Abhyanker argues that the two are, in fact, compatible.
"Law is about knowledge, law is about books. Most of my time in law school, I spent in the library reading books…. This is a very complementary thing for someone who wants to self-educate themselves about the law," he says.
Selling books and tablets also makes it possible for Abhyanker to set up shop and create an offline presence for his until-now, online-only brand among retail stores lining what he describes as "probably the most expensive street in the Bay Area." That’s because, Abhyanker says, local zoning laws require commercial businesses to devote a significant percentage of their square footage to walkable, retail space. In his mind, the marriage is a win-win: LegalForce can establish a consumer-facing, brick-and-mortar presence in a highly desirable area, and the community gets a new bookstore and space for classes and workshops that’s essentially subsidized by its legal services revenue stream.
"Unfortunately a lot of retail businesses are dying now, and especially bookstores are dying… most people are looking in these retail stores and buying online. What we wanted to do was bring the bookstore back to Main Street," he says.
And while that’s a nice sentiment, and one that Abhyanker comes across as sincere about, making it easier for small business owners and regular Joes to access legal services is what he’s more personally driven to do—and not just because he’s the founder of a legal services company.
Abhyanker watched as his father, once a successful retailer of Apple products with multiple store locations, struggle and go bankrupt amid the company’s downturn in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"My father didn’t know a single lawyer, he got screwed over by banks… and what I wanted to do was create a new way for people like my father to access the law."