Just a decade ago, bookstores could add sidelines, events, and a cafe with a decent cup of coffee, maybe beer and wine, to boost sales. But with the economy limping along and e-book sales steadily rising, that's not necessarily enough any more. At this year's fall conference for the New England Independent Booksellers Association, three retailers spoke about other ways to expand a store's mission and increase margin.
For Chris Morrow, general manager of Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vt., the answer to today's credit crunch being applied by publishers is consignment. "The old days of getting 60 or 90 days dating are gone," he says. "Nowadays, we use books as credit management." Lately he's been rethinking the returns model, and in mid-March Northshire began working with local Vermont publisher Chelsea Green on a dedicated area stocked on consignment. "Just the dynamic changes your attitude to your inventory," says Morrow. "We order what we want and send them a check within 15 days for the books that sold the previous month."
According to Chelsea Green president and publisher Margo Baldwin, both backlist and frontlist, especially of food and gardening titles, are doing well under the arrangement. Even excluding big event titles, Chelsea Green's sales at Northshire have gone up 225% over the past six and a half months. In fact, the consignment program has been so successful that Chelsea Green plans to expand it and will have a dozen consignment stores this fall, including the King's English in Salt Lake City and Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H.
"The smart publishers that don't have credit issues can use their cash positions as a selling tool," says Morrow, who will start stocking another Vermont press, Inner Traditions, on consignment in mid-October. Northshire also has a 250-sq.-ft. boutique in its children's section for Zutano infant and toddler clothing, which it sells on consignment.
Susan Novotny, owner of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, N.Y., and Market Block Books in Troy, N.Y., wants to increase margin and control costs by publishing the books that sell best in her store and other independents. Five years ago, she started a POD business with Eric Wilska, owner of the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass. Since then Troy Book Makers, near her store in Troy, has printed 360 titles by 300 authors and will turn a profit for the first time in 2010. Even though Novotny and Wilska actively promote the POD books through local author displays at the Bookloft and signings at Market Block, she finds that operating a POD is a wholly separate business from a bookstore.
At this year's BEA, she launched Staff Picks Press, which, says Novotny, is more of a collaboration between author and bookseller. "The concept," she adds, "is to look in your own backyard." Her first selection, Change: A Story for All Ages by Judith Barnes and Erick James, with illustrations by Jeff Grader, appeared this summer as a paperback original and could be picked up by one of four larger houses interested in republishing it in hardcover. In November, Staff Picks will publish journalist Peter Golden's novel about two lovers who came of age in the '60s, Come Back Love, which he promoted at NAIBA and NEIBA. But Novotny doesn't want to choose all the books for the press. She views it as an opportunity for other booksellers to publish their own "staff picks" and act as an agent, earning a commission. "Look at the last book that won the Pulitzer Prize," she says. "[The publisher] only paid him $1,000. We're really a lot stronger than we think we are."
Although WEBS, America's Yarn Store, in Northampton, Mass., is obviously not a bookstore, the 36-year-old retailer, one of the two largest independent yarn stores in the country, faces many of the same problems as bookstores and has met them by trying to do everything better. It's a family business now run by the second generation, Steve and Kathy Elkins, and sells new and bargain (or closeout) yarns, as well as craft books. It works, says Steve Elkins, because of a combination of bricks-and-mortar and Web. Every page of the 16,000-sq.-ft. store's Web site (yarn.com) has a place for customers to sign up for the mailing list, and there is even an Ask the Elkins section, where customers can contact the owners directly. In addition, the Elkins do a weekly half-hour radio show, Ready, Set Knit!, with interviews and knitting and crochet tips, that they repackage as podcasts. The podcasts, which cost $15,000 a year to produce, average 8,000 downloads a week on iTunes, or roughly 410,000 downloads a year. It doesn't have to cost a lot to be more than just a "bookstore," but it does take time, as Elkins points out.