It used to be that offering customers coffee, tea, or occasionally wine or beer with their books was enough. But in some communities, books go better with heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, and local organic meat. Outdoor marketplaces may not work for everyone—Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., dropped out after one summer—but for the right book, an occasional table at a farmers’ market can boost sales.
Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y., takes a table at the local Rhinebeck Farmers’ Market five or six times a year. “It’s a nice connection to make,” she says. “The locals like to see us there, and the tourists get to know we’re here.” Books aren’t always an easy sell, Hermans acknowledges. They need a hook—like catering to kids at the market. “Cookbooks are a natural fit,” says Hermans. “The author will usually do a cooking demo using produce available at the market and offer samples.” This year, she’s planning signings for Marie Iannotti, author of The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables, and Nava Atlas, author of Wild About Greens, as well as children’s authors and illustrators Iza Trepani (The Bear Went Over the Mountain), Peter McCarty (Chloe), and Elwood Smith (See How They Run).
For Joan Grenier, who owns Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., the farmers’ market she helped start across the Common has been “great for the town.” In terms of benefiting her store, not so much, although books by popular food bloggers like Marisa McClellan, author of Food in Jars, or Alana Chernila, author of The Homemade Pantry, do well. However, the store’s biggest marketplace signing could be its upcoming fund-raiser for local PBS station, WGBY, with Jacques Pépin, who will give a talk and sign copies of Essential Pépin at a different farmers’ market, the one in Northampton.
Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss., took a different tack for its first foray into selling at the two-year-old farmers’ market in Livingston. “We’re going with the blues angle,” says community liaison Maggie Stevenson, who brought photographer Ken Murphy to the market to sign Mississippi State of Blues. Live blues music played in the background courtesy of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
Three summers ago, Connie Brooks experimented with author events at the farmers’ market directly behind her newly purchased bookstore, Battenkill Books in Cambridge, N.Y. “It wasn’t lucrative,” says Brooks, who invited local cookbook authors to sign and handed out discount coupons to vendors, so they would talk up her store. This year Brooks is finding that proximity is much more important than events. The market is so close to her store that the winery booth is just three steps from her back door, and she has turned formerly slow Sundays into the second most profitable day of the week simply by opening her doors. She stays open four hours on Sunday, the same as the market, 10 to 2 p.m. Market-goers can park in front of Battenkill and walk through to shop. “When it’s hot, we’re air conditioned, and we have a lovely bathroom,” says Brooks. “Those four hours,” she says, “are absolutely our busiest day. It’s been real transformative.”
Cynthia Compton, owner of 4 Kids Books and Toys in Zionsville, Ind., likes to pick up corn and tomatoes at her local farmers’ market, but she leaves finding customers there to nonprofit groups like pet rescues, the scouts, and Second Helpings. She gives those organizations $5 gift cards for her store to hand out as customer incentives. Since the cards only cost 4 Kids if consumers use them, she finds the promotion an acceptable investment. “We get their e-mail info, a chance to wow them at the store, and make friends. It’s on us to turn that into a longer-term relationship, something that is much easier to do once I get them in here.”
The Bookworm Bookstore has been located at the West Shore Farmers’ Market in Lemoyne, Pa., for the past dozen years, and doubled its size when Borders went out of business. According to owner Sam Marcus, the store is only open on market days—Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday—and on request. “I found that if you’re open six days, they’ll spread their shopping out,” says 73-year-old Marcus, who started the out-of-print and rare bookstore 37 years ago. Like other retailers, he’s also discovered that a physical bookstore is not enough and relies on Internet sales, too. Unlike others who sell at farmers’ markets, his strongest categories are literature, history, medical, and Eastern philosophy, although he stocks 1,500 cookbooks and a lot of children’s titles.
The Friends of the Salinas Public Library have had success with weekly tables at the Salinas, Calif., farmers’ market. The used inventory comes from books that have been rejected by the Friends’ Bookshop inside the library. Most Saturdays when the weather is good, Friends’ volunteers bring a mix of 400 to 600 used nonfiction, fiction, multimedia, and children’s books, along with a selection of Steinbeck books—Salinas is in Steinbeck country. Prices are low, typically 50¢ for paperbacks and $1 for hardcovers, with occasional specials like five Pocket paperbacks for $1. Book sale coordinator Angie Quesenberry also rotates the books she brings, since many of the customers are regulars. “We have faithful customers that stop by every week to browse for a half hour after they shop for veggies,” she says.
Wool, Fiber, and Books
Like farmers’ markets, wool and fiber festivals can move a lot of books, especially the two largest ones at the beginning and end of the outdoor selling season in West Friendship, Md., and Rhinebeck, N.Y. “They have been huge for us. That’s where we find our enthusiast audience,” says Deborah Balmuth, editorial director of Storey Publishing. She works with Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, N.Y., which handles book sales for both festivals. The Rhinebeck event has worked out so well for Merritt that it jumped at the chance to add Maryland for the first time this spring. The festivals are so important to Storey that the house even plans release dates around them. Last year it launched Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson’s The Fleece and Fiber Source Book at the Maryland festival in May and Gwen Steege’s The Knitter’s Life List in New York in October. This fall it may use the Rhinebeck festival to spread the word that it is doing its first spinning book, Sarah Anderson’s The Spinner’s Book of Yarn Design. The press isn’t alone in using sheep and wool festivals to introduce big books to crafters. Last year 19 authors signed for one day at the Rhinebeck show (officially known as the New York State Sheep & Wool Festival). This year the festival is adding a second day of book signings.