Most bookstores host authors to benefit their community—and to boost the bottom line. It’s no secret that events-related titles frequently rise to the top of store bestsellers lists, or that publishers prefer to place authors at stores that report to The New York Times bestsellers list. Publishers pay to put authors on tour because bookstore events and the promotions that booksellers do before and after events sell books and can propel them onto local and national bestsellers lists. But late last week, while much of the nation was riveted by Boston’s lockdown, RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., turned that model on its head by featuring an author who was not on tour and has no new books, Gloria Steinem. Her most recent work, a collection of essays on aging, Doing Sixty and Seventy, was republished in 2006; her autobiography, Revolution from Within, came out two decades ago. By bringing Steinem to its community, RiverRun hoped to do more than give readers a chance to hear Steinem in person and sell her backlist. Its goal was nothing less than to show the store's value to the community.
“As a bookstore, we’re fighting to explain to people why we should exist and why we’re vital,” says RiverRun co-owner Tom Holbrook. “We wanted to do an event that was topical and of cultural significance, that would get people talking before and after the event.” By paying a speakers bureau to bring the well-known feminist writer and cofounder of Ms. magazine to speak on Why Equality Matters to Everyone, in conjunction with the Women’s Fund of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Women’s Initiative, the store may have gone a long way toward achieving its goal.
In addition to selling-out the event, which brought more than 500 people to the South Church in downtown Portsmouth, RiverRun set up livestreaming, at a fee, so that overflow audiences could attend at home. And, in fact, Steinem did sign books, lots of them. Over the weeks leading up to the event, RiverRun also held a series of small-scale conversations, or focus groups, at the store, South Church, and around the community on gender equality. Eight were kept very small, with six to 12 participants; one had as many as 40 attendees. No matter the size, each was asked to write a question for Steinem to answer during the q & a part of her presentation. To keep the conversation going afterward, RiverRun created a separate Web page on gender equality, SteinemSpeaks.com. It also made a DVD of her talk to show at future events on the subject.
“We need to prove our worth,” says Holbrook. “We can’t just hope people will think, don’t shop Amazon.” Holbrook and his partners are already looking to the next large scale community-wide event. Ideally they would like to do one every six months.