For most independent bookstores, selling to schools means educator discounts, teacher nights, and book fairs. As a result, few independents target school libraries. But at last fall’s regional trade shows, 27-year-old Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop in LaVerne, Calif., and Turtleback Books in St. Louis, Mo., which was recently reintroduced as a division of 45-year-old prebinder San Val, each made the case that indies could and should offer a broader range of educational services aimed directly at school librarians.
“I think this is an untapped opportunity for bookstores,” said Richard Buthod, sales manager for Turtleback. He sees increased potential for prebound titles and class sets with the rollout of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. According to Erin Clyburn, director of collection development at Turtleback, “A lot of stores have the impression that [selling to school libraries] is difficult. Actually it’s easy. We offer free marketing materials and sales tools.” Turtleback provides sell sheets for Common Core titles and children’s classics for grades k–12, and has a list of nearly 8,000 prebound books.
In a handout at the regionals store representatives attended (and they attended nearly all of them), Patrick Nelson, general manager of Mrs. Nelson’s Library Services division, described the problem that his store faced before it created a separate library division in 2005. The store had become frustrated by schools taking the cash they earned from their book fairs and using it to purchase prebound books from Follett. “As an indie bookstore, you have built a strong, loyal community following. Librarians love shopping at your store and depend on your expertise. But despite their loyalty, these customers shop with large, national book vendors in order to get services you can’t provide,” he wrote. To make Mrs. Nelson’s even more competitive, in 2009 it bought a local bindery. Last summer it began growing its library business by offering other independent bookstores the same just-in-time prebinding, cataloging and processing, and textbook reconditioning services that it provides to its local school libraries.
While recently opened stores haven’t been responsive to Mrs. Nelson’s message—“I was offering a solution to a problem they didn’t yet know,” said Nelson—it has resonated with several long-time booksellers. Some are beginning to test the services of both Turtleback and Mrs. Nelson’s. Russo’s Books in Bakersfield, Calif., started working with Mrs. Nelson’s in May. “I honestly had no idea there was a business like this, or how lucrative it is. The markup is ridiculous,” said Thomas G. Robinson, who handles business development for Russo’s. By drop-shipping large orders from the publisher for books like The Odyssey, the store is able to keep the book profit and only pays Mrs. Nelson’s for binding. Although Robinson declined to cite exact figures, he said, “It has grown our business.”
Bay Area bookseller Shannon Mathis Grant, senior children’s buyer at San Francisco–based Books Inc., has only recently begun trying Mrs. Nelson’s services with a local private school. While it’s too soon to know what the service will do for Books Inc.’s bottom line, Grant said that she hopes their libraries “will appreciate having an indie option. Basically we’re offering Mrs. Nelson’s services to our customers. We’ll be the liaison for their store.” Even as a liaison, there is a learning curve for working with school libraries. “For us, this is really new and a completely different market and model. We’ve never solicited large-scale orders before,” she added.
John Cavalier and his wife, Michelle, founded Cavalier House Books in 2005 to help area schools get the books they needed after Book Warehouse of Baton Rouge closed. The pair initially worked from home while they got their college degrees, then opened a bricks-and-mortar location in 2009. “A lot of schools break down their book budgets into consumables and nonconsumables. Most of the stuff we’re doing goes directly to the students [who keep it],” said Cavalier. Among the store’s most popular “consumables” are To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby. Now Cavalier would like to expand into nonconsumables, or school library titles. He plans to begin by offering schools credit for Turtleback prebound books in conjunction with the store’s book fairs.
Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., already works with local schools by offering competitive discounts on bulk orders, delivering AP Summer Reading Program books directly to students in the schools, and participating in a SCRIP program with the PTSA. Now it is about to test both Turtleback’s and Mrs. Nelson’s indie school library services. “Since the purse strings of the schools are being tightened, as they ever seem to be, we are excited by the prospect of being able to offer these goods and services to our school so that we can help save them money,” said community outreach director Paul Hanson.
Even with two companies offering help, it’s not necessarily easy to test library services. Some districts make it difficult for bookstores to work with teachers, and especially librarians. “You have to decide if that’s where you want your energies to go,” said René Kirkpatrick, co-owner of Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island, Wash. “Here a teacher or librarian often has to contact you. You can’t break into it.” Still, as Turtleback’s Clyburn pointed out, “Times being tough, a bookstore’s ability to offer prebound books and library services offers huge benefits to its community.”