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Allison Hill


This Book Will Change Your Life

Posted: 03/05/2013 4:28 pm

I was working in the bookstore late one evening when a customer asked for me. "I'm looking for a book," he said, "and I saw your staff picks around the store and thought you might be able to help me." I asked him what kind of book he was looking for. He paused for a moment, then his voice caught and it seemed like he might start crying: "I'm looking for a book that will change my life."

In 20 years of bookselling, I've had customers share surprisingly intimate details of their lives with me. A woman in her late 50s asked me for books on relationships, but after I walked her to the section, she started crying and confided the story of her daughter's marriage to an abusive man, and how she needed a book that could save her. A well-dressed couple, him in a suit and her in a wrap dress, came in over the holidays and asked me for books to give a friend who was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. They had tried searching on Amazon, but the titles that came up were about the mechanics of how to survive, not the particular poetry of living with dying. More than once someone has asked me for a good novel, "something that will make me laugh," only to admit once I'd found a book for them, that they needed something funny to distract them from some trauma or drama that they then proceeded to share with me. A hipster asked me for books on personal finances; she was determined to begin the long crawl out of a deep debt. A famous actor admitted his stage fright and asked for a copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. A young woman asked me for books on recovering from loss; she had recently lost a child...

In the wake of Internet competition, bookstores have been feeling like publisher showcases and promoting ourselves as literary curators. But our true value may be as basic as this: often people come to us simply to talk to another human being. In a world that is more and more automated, computerized, web-based, sometimes, someone just wants to tell their story to another human being, feel like someone heard them, and take away hope that things will change -- hope in the form of a book.

I walked with the customer downstairs and we went through my staff picks that he had seen earlier: Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, A Woman's Worth, The Gift of Fear. At various points these books had all shifted my perspective, changed my way of thinking, even saved my life one could say. Diet for a Small Planet inspired my conversion to vegetarianism when I was 18. The Comfort Trap helped me bring necessary closure to my 10-year marriage. Wherever You Go, There You Are introduced me to meditation and a new mindful approach to my life. As Thoreau wrote, "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book."

These recent years have marked a new era for all of us, one full of changes. And for many people, those changes felt dramatic and alarmingly sudden. But they were years in the making, the results of hundreds of decisions we all made every single day: who we voted for, who we trusted, where we shopped, where we didn't shop, what we chose to not pay attention to, and so on. I'm not saying the global economic meltdown is our fault, but I am suggesting that perhaps right now we are making choices every day that will influence our future. A decision to save $6.00 on Amazon, multiplied by thousands of customers every day, means that your local bookstore, the place where you hang out, meet friends, met your partner, or found the book that changed your life, may not be there next year...

But for now, many of us brick and mortar booksellers are still here, committed to what I believe is a noble pursuit: putting the right book in the right person's hands. Tonight when I left work there were 30 people lined up for the grilled cheese food truck in our parking lot. There were another 40 people in our event space to hear a first-time author read. There were 10 members of a book club discussing a new novel, and another dozen folks in our coffee shop, most of them reading or writing. A family in the children's department was reading picture books together, and another 15 people quietly browsed the bookshelves. It is in these moments that I am awed by the role a bookstore plays in a community, a feeling made even more awesome by the realization that today we sold 1,087 books, any one of which could change someone's life.

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  • Specialize

    By focusing on a particular theme and not straying from it, the<a href="http://web.mit.edu/bookstore/www/" target="_hplink"> MIT Press Bookstore</a> has a fanatical following. "I spent a few hours here and I was amazed. Literally, every book here is an idea. I found so many interesting books that I had to write down all the titles. They have books published by the MIT Press, but also titles from other academic publishers. Whoever curates the selection is outstanding." -- Yelp review by Terri Y.

  • Have a beautiful space

    Not everyone can be the Ateneo bookstore <a href="http://argentinastravel.com/268/el-ateneo-in-buenos-aires-a-bookstore-to-end-all-bookstores/" target="_hplink">in a former theater in Buenos Aires</a>, (though Tattered Cover in Colorado <a href="http://www.tatteredcover.com/colfax-avenue-theater-ideas" target="_hplink">has its own take</a> on the former-theater vibe) but the more you create a space that people want to see inside, and stay inside, the more custom you'll have.

  • Offer memberships

    Membership clubs, <a href="http://www.skylightbooks.com/friends-benefits-membership-club" target="_hplink">such as that of Skylight Books</a>, make people feel connected, engages them more with what you're doing, and provides some much-needed cash up front. Member discounts also encourage local shopping, not super shipping.

  • Have an entertaining social media presence

    Social media can engage people from around the world - and get them visiting when they're in town.

  • Offer more than basic coffee

    If you have a coffee shop, make it more than another generic chain, but a destination in itself. <a href="http://www.colophoncafe.com/" target="_hplink">Colophon Cafe</a> inside <a href="http://villagebooks.com/" target="_hplink">Village Books</a> in Fairhaven, WA is a local favorite for people who want a great, healthy meal. That it's within and overlapping with the bookstore is a win-win for everyone.

  • Host unusual events

    Readings? How staid. Why not host weird parties, music, celebrations, costume competitions, fan nights centered around books? That's what <a href="http://www.brooklinebooksmith.com/" target="_hplink">Brookline Booksmith</a> did for <a href="http://huff.to/Nck7I7" target="_hplink">the paperback launch of "The Night Circus,"</a> with themed food, decorations, costumes, a tarot card reader, a live band and dancers, and a fun and lively author Q+A. Readers who were there won't forget it in a hurry (and neither will we).

  • Show what good value print can be

    Witness what <a href="http://www.strandbooks.com/" target="_hplink">Strand Bookstore</a> puts on its remaindered titles. Print, it's time to fight back.

  • Sell old books alongside new ones

    The Travel Bookshop in London became famous for putting really old books about travel destinations alongside new ones - you go in for a Lonely Planet, you come out with a first edition of TE Lawrence's thoughts on the Middle East.

  • Feature other printed media alongside books

    St Mark's Bookshop in New York has an unrivaled collection of incredible independent magazines alongside its book selection, creating a great cross pollination of print.

  • Don't ban cell phones

    Some bookstores have a 'no smartphone usage' policy. 'No rude talking on cell phones' is one thing, but 'no looking things up on Amazon' will only succeed in making people feel badly about the store. If they really want to buy a book on Amazon that they've looked at in your store, you won't stop them. Giving them a negative association with your store means they'll not only do it again - but probably not come back.

  • Bundle books, movies and music together

    The new Hunger Games movie DVD comes in a variety of special-edition box sets with free pendants, backpacks, jewelry - but not the book. Yet as <a href="http://www.smalldemons.com" target="_hplink">Small Demons</a> demonstrates, books are connected to other cultural objects in myriad ways. Why not make those visible and offer special themed bundles?

  • Establish an ongoing relationship with well-known local creatives

    You don't have to wait until local names have a book out, so you can organize a signing. Identify peoples' favorite local authors, designers, creatives with cult audiences, and work with them to make special book jackets, bookmarks, posters, or other exclusive book-themed items. They could run bimonthly events or a one-off class. They'll love supporting their local store, and you'll get new products and increased local interest from another fan base.

  • Curate a themed noticeboard

    We don't know if it's still there, but the travel bookstore Altair in Barcelona used to have an incredible feature: a noticeboard for people looking for travel partners. People would pass by and read to see where people were going, what adventures they could dream about joining - and maybe which journeys they might just make their own.

  • Bookstore, Library partnerships

    <a href="http://articles.boston.com/2012-02-28/arts/31103366_1_picture-books-latest-book-bookstores" target="_hplink">Bookstores are opening inside libraries</a>. Why shouldn't both team up and find ways to celebrate reading together?

  • Keychains

    It sounds ridiculous, but if people have your name on their keychain, they'll see it and touch it every day, and remember you're there. Make them free with memberships or sell them at cost - consider it a piece of effective guerrilla marketing. But you have to make them good enough (and small enough) for people to want to use! <em>Image from <a href="http://www.cafepress.com/+i_like_books_aluminum_photo_keychain,641892299" target="_hplink">LabelMakers on Cafepress.com</a></em>

  • Make a nonprofit

    <a href="http://www.keplers2020.com/" target="_hplink">Kepler's</a> is hiving off its community features into a new non-profit, giving it greater flexibility and financial advantages.

  • Host other events

    Bookstores have already been the venue for <a href="http://www.chelseagreen.com/content/our-green-partner-matter-bookstore-screening-collapse/" target="_hplink">screenings</a>, private parties, <a href="http://www.bookpatrol.net/2012/06/bookstore-wedding.html#.UCRJ-GOe7DU" target="_hplink">weddings</a>, <a href="http://revolutionbooksla.blogspot.com/2011/04/join-us-volunteers-mtg-damian-garcia_16.html" target="_hplink">commemorations</a>. Why not host read ins, book speed dating, geekouts and more? It certainly helps if you have a space <a href="http://www.powerhousearena.com/about/" target="_hplink">like Powerhouse Books</a>...

  • Hold classes

    Book Clubs are all well and good, but why not further people's reading and knowledge in other ways? Politics & Prose in Washington, DC offers <a href="http://www.politics-prose.com/classes/classes" target="_hplink">a fantastic series of classes</a> to its patrons.

  • Pool resources

    Create a group of small, non-competing booksellers around the country, and together pool resources to make something amazing that can only be sold in your stores (and not on your websites). For instance, what would happen if 15 booksellers all put in $1,000, and paid Neil Gaiman or Gillian Flynn or E.L. James to write an exclusive short story, printed on an Espresso Machine in one of the network's stores, and distributed between them? <em>Image from <a href="http://ibooknet.com" target="_hplink">ibooknet.com</a></em>

  • Do literary-themed stunts

    Book Soup has <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_Soup" target="_hplink">gained a reputation</a> for unexpected yet intelligent headline-grabbing stunts, including against Paris Hilton and Margaret Thatcher. The resultant sales and publicity did them no harm whatsoever.

  • Sell other, high-quality book-themed products

    Take a leaf from<a href="http://www.stlbooks.com/shirts.php" target="_hplink"> STL Books</a>, erm, book, and track down decent literary-themed suppliers such as Out of Print Clothing.

  • Publish Books

    Increase your presence and help get cutting-edge work out into the world, while potentially creating a new revenue stream. City Lights in San Francisco <a href="http://www.citylights.com/publishing/" target="_hplink">has been doing that since 1955.</a> Or you can save out-of-print titles, <a href="http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/singularityco/singularity-and-co" target="_hplink">as Singularity & Co is working to do.</a>

  • Print books

    <a href="http://www.ondemandbooks.com/" target="_hplink">Espresso Book Machines</a> are starting to appear in bookstores - such as<a href="http://www.harvard.com/clubs_services/books_on_demand/" target="_hplink"> this one in Harvard's bookstore</a> - offering print-on-demand titles from a vast database. But the machine isn't enough - you also need to help people understand how and why they should use it, such as making short story-compilations for the beach or for flights.

  • Encourage local self publishing

    It's one thing to have a printer, but with great expertise in reading and local affairs, why not help local writers self publish, and then sell their books in a section of the store? McNally Jackson in New York offers <a href="http://www.mcnallyjackson.com/self-publishing" target="_hplink">a range of self-publishing services</a> to its clientele, who then get the added thrill of printing off and selling copies in their favorite local bookstore.

  • Invite guest community curators

    Having art on the walls is one thing, as <a href="http://www.fantagraphics.com/" target="_hplink">Fantagraphics</a> does extremely effectively, but why not invite local guest curators from your community to fill a corner of your store with different objects, books from the store, artwork and personal possessions to tell a story they think is important? Each time, they'll bring in friends and family, expanding your audience and adding something new to the local atmosphere.

  • Team up with other local brands

    For a local bookstore to thrive, it needs to be an essential part of the community - and that includes the community of vendors as well as consumers. So why not team up with local brewers, like <a href="http://www.thespottydog.com/blog/?page_id=19" target="_hplink">The Spotty Dog in Hudson, NY</a>? You could offer poetry for their beer labels, introduce literary-themed screenings at the local arthouse cinema, donate books to your local coffee shop's reading corner... and encourage them to come into the store and recommend books as well.

  • Make your staff a feature of the store

    Staff recommendations - like this nicely designed example from <a href="http://www.politics-prose.com/" target="_hplink">Politics & Prose</a> - are great, but why stop there? Why not let each staff member make a small booklet of their top books, or include special "Jane recommended this. Here's others she thinks you might like" bookmarks inside certain purchases? Knowledgeable and friendly bookstore employees are one of the key benefits of real-world bookstores. Use them wisely.

  • Sell Online

    Amazon isn't the only company who can sell online. The website <a href="http://www.indiebound.org/google-ebooks" target="_hplink">IndieBound</a> can help you find books sold digitally in a way that your local indie bookstore will get a cut from the sale; they also have <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/indiebound-reader/id487304338?mt=8" target="_hplink">their own iOS reading app. </a> And why not offer value Amazon can't? Signed copies, extra presents, surprise packages, reading guides... enhance the reading experience and customers will love you for it.