As booksellers look for new services to attract customers, many are increasingly turning to language and writing classes, and are even teaching mah-jongg and tarot. "You name it, we'll do it if it has any relationship to being able to read," says Elaine Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., which has been offering classes for the past 18 years. "It's an important part of our business. The more people you have in your bookstore the better." Book Passage has a full-time director of classes, Leslie Berkler, and uses a gallery, a meeting room, and occasionally Petrocelli's office to make the classes work. The Bay Area store can hold as many as seven or eight classes a day, and these in turn have led to three conferences—Children's Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers, and Travel Food and Photography—as well as a Literary and Culinary Tour of Paris.
"We offer classes to get traffic into the store and for sales," says Cindy Dach, general manager of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., which began doing workshops before New York publishers began including Arizona on author tours. Sometimes, even when they do, Changing Hands will ask the author to give a workshop in addition to a signing at the end of the day. The fee for attendance is the price of a book. For a recent event with Benjamin Hale, for example, 30 people bought his novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, to attend his lunchtime writing workshop; another 40 came to his reading that evening.
Dach estimates that about 80% of the store's classes involve creative writing. One especially popular one by local author Michael Stackpole (Star Wars: Rogue Squadron) on how to write a novel in 30 days sells out every time he gives it, roughly six times a year. Another 10% are based on spiritually oriented topics like feng shui, and the remaining 10% are conducted by chiropractors or coaches who pay the store to speak. Sometimes workshop attendees go on to publish their own books, like Amy Fellner Dominy's recently released debut YA novel, OyMG (Walker), and Susan Suthard's forthcoming Nagasaki (Viking, Jan. 2012).
When Lynn Reed and her husband, Bill, purchased Misty Valley Books in Chester, Vt., a decade ago, language classes seemed like a natural addition to the events schedule. Bill had taught French for 30 years, and both had lived and worked abroad for many years. "It's really taken off, and it's a social thing as well," says Reed. In addition to Spanish and French, Misty Valley offers Russian, taught by Northeastern University professor Nicholas Daniloff, who's a summer resident. Some classes are free, like a four-week poetry seminar taught by poet Michael Palma.
Classes are a major source of income for the Reeds, who stopped taking a salary from book sales. In fact, in January, when sales dropped, the two considered turning the store into an adult education center. Fortunately, book sales are now holding their own, and the classes are helping sell more foreign language dictionaries and bargain books on France.
Lynn Reed encourages other booksellers to add classes. At a New England Independent Booksellers association peer review, she suggested it to Jeffrey Wheeler, who has owned Village Book Store in Littleton, N.H., for the past decade and previously taught Spanish. He now offers language classes by native speakers, in addition to classes on photography, home economics, and mah-jongg. "The reception has been better than we thought," says Wheeler, who likes to keep the prices low and gives 60% of the registration fee to the teacher. "Like all booksellers, we're struggling to be a community hub. [The classes] are mostly about keeping people coming to the store."
Three-year-old travel bookstore Idlewild Books in New York City decided to add language classes and foreign language books last year. Owner David Del Vecchio started with Spanish and French classes and books, and the store added Italian this summer. It also sells some foreign language children's books and will add foreign language classes for children ages five to nine in September. Del Vecchio estimates that about 200 people take classes at the store each quarter, and they are offered a 20% discount on purchases. "It contributes to sales indirectly," he says, "because it brings in more customers, who wouldn't come in otherwise. It's like our sideline."
At newly established Trilogy Bookstore, which opened in the Avondale Estates section of Atlanta last October, "the classes just developed themselves," says manager Valentin Tunkin. A combination metaphysical/LGBT store, Trilogy took over a vacant space next door, where it began to offer classes in yoga and Wicca, as well as meditation sessions and weekly tarot readings. "Our main goal is to be able to flourish," says Tunkin, noting that, that despite other offerings, books outsell all the other items in the store.