New England booksellers long have been in the bookselling forefront: from founding the first regional bookselling group more than four decades ago (the New England Independent Booksellers Association) and the paperback revolution (Paperback Booksmith) to computerized inventory systems (WordStock) and the launch of regional and national chains (Lauriat’s and Waldenbooks). That same enterprising spirit continues today.
Former PW Bookstore of the Year winner Northshire Bookstore is one of several New England stores that have found success by bucking trends, in its case that of “right-sizing.” Rather than scale back its 10,000-sq.-ft. store in Manchester Center, Vt., co-owner Chris Morrow opened a second 9,000-sq.-ft. location across the border in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., last August. According to Morrow, “the new store is hitting projections, and we are looking forward to our first full summer.”
Morrow regards the in-store experience as key to success. “The ambiance of the physical store is an essential,” he says. “The floors, the custom-built bookshelves, the seating, the unique decorative items, the layout create a sense of discovery.”
Others have followed his lead. Last fall Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., more than doubled its space to 6,600 sq. ft. by adding a second store front to the existing building. And Edgartown Books on Martha’s Vineyard is completing an expansion that includes a courtyard that the store can use for events in conjunction with a neighboring building it purchased in December, which will serve as a café/restaurant.
Bank Square co-owner Annie Philbrick says she realized expansion was important after a BISG report stated that 21% of books sales occur because of displays. She filled the store with large tables so that she could bring in more coffee-table books and created displays of art, photography, and music titles on cubes by the new front door. As a result, she says, sales for December increased over 20%, and that the first quarter, which is usually slow, was up 17%.
Joyce and Jeffrey Sudikoff, who purchased the Edgartown store in May 2012, have also gone against the grain not just by buying the bookstore but by investing heavily in it. Last summer they added the btb (or “Behind the Bookstore”) coffee shop, which is now being moved to the new building.
General manager Susan Mercier says that she’s thinking about tweaking some book sections to make use of the extra shelf space. “The one thing I took away from Winter Institute was to listen to our customers,” she says. “So I asked for constructive criticism, not just what they like but what they don’t like.” She’s also looking forward to collaborating with the island’s other bookstore, another former PW Bookstore of the Year, Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven.
With a background in technology, it was clear that when Jeff Mayersohn bought Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife Linda Seamonson, there would be some changes at the 80-year-old bookstore. Harvard was an early adopter of social media and has more than 30,000 followers on Twitter. But one thing it’s doing that few others are is scouring Facebook for fans of authors being featured in upcoming events, like Ivan Klima or David Sibley, and inviting them to attend and/or preorder signed books.
Harvard was also among the first to get an Espresso Book Machine (Northshire was the first in North America), and “Paige M. Gutenborg” has become an integral part of the store. Mayersohn says that more and more when he’s working at the information desk on a Saturday and someone can’t find a book he prints it on Paige. The store also uses the book machine to bring older books back into print. It’s using Evernote internally so that staff can collaborate more easily. Customers can buy tickets to events through Eventbrite, and then are checked in via iPad when they arrive. Soon the bookstore will launch AisleConnect so that customers who don’t want to go to the information desk can find the books they want with their cellphones.
David Didriksen, owner of Willow Books & Cafe in Acton, Mass., says he was very pleased with how the store ran in 2013. Reacting to the still sluggish economy, Didriksen, who was senior v-p of Hudson Group for 14 years before settling into his own store in 1996, instituted a number of changes. “The first reasonable thing any store would do would be tighten our belts,” he says, citing as one example cutting back on phones. “We get a lot fewer calls.” He also carries a lot fewer new books and has added used titles along with gifts, yoga mats, and other high-margin goods. “I’m still 85% books,” says Didriksen. “But the little stuff adds up. I sell a lot of yo-yo’s in the spring.” He’s also bringing in t-shirts that say “Acton” and “Concord” to create a local identity. Didriksen is trying to capitalize on what he calls “chain fatigue.”
Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., has done well with the shop local movement, despite the fact that owner Carol Chittenden says, “In general I find it easier to collaborate within the publishing community, especially in New England, than with other Main Street merchants.” A few summers ago, when she was trying to fill a hole in her events schedule, she copied a scavenger hunt that a local family did every summer and asked her Candlewick rep for cardboard Waldo figures. From that humble beginning came one of the summer’s most popular events around the country, Find Waldo Local, now in its third year. “Somewhere along the line,” says Chittenden, “I realized that my motto is, ‘Use what you have and do what you can.’ We don’t have everything. But we do get up on our hind legs and put to good use the literary network, and community knowledge that are within reach.”
Tiny 700-sq.-ft. Galaxy Books in Hardwick, Vt., could become a model of what a successful transition can be. The store, which does especially well with books on agriculture, including raising livestock, as well as cookbooks, children’s, and works by local authors, began 26 years ago as a table in a local yarn shop. Founder Linda Ramsdell and long-time employee Sandy Scott have talked about changing ownership for the past five years. But it wasn’t until they attended a program on bookstore transitions last spring that the process began speeding up. “Since then, there have been numerous discussions and several possible scenarios for the purchase,” explains Scott, who is currently working with a customer to create a partnership to buy the store. Ramsdell and Scott plan to close the deal by early summer. Although Scott and her partner have a few ideas for remodeling the space and expanding sidelines, they plan to go slowly. “We want to preserve the character of the Galaxy Bookshop and the connection with our community,” Scott says.