“I always think we’re so good at education, And then I come to this show and say, we are so, so very good at education,” Cynthia Compton, the owner of 4Kids Books & Toys in Indianapolis told PW following the “7 Habits of Successful Bookstore Owners” panel Wednesday morning during the Heartland Fall Forum’s Day of Education. HFF, the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association’s joint trade show, kicked off Tuesday evening at the Marriott Renaissance Hotel at the Depot in Minneapolis with a reception and awards ceremony, followed by a jam-packed Day of Education. It will conclude Thursday evening.
The “7 Habits of Successful Bookstore Owners” panel featured two GLIBA booksellers: Jill Minor of Saturn Booksellers in Saturn, Mich. and Sue Boucher of Cottage Bookshop in Glen Arbor, Mich., as well as two MIBA booksellers: Kris Kleindeinst of Left Bank Books in St. Louis and Judith Kissner of Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge, Minn. The four panelists responded to a checklist of the seven common characteristics of successful booksellers compiled by the bookstore consulting group Paz & Associates with insights gleaned from their own experiences, such as hiring and training employees. Kleindeinst said it was all about seven words: “train, trust, delegate, review, reward, respect, and listen,” while Kissner talked about going off-site with her employees once a month to talk about the “bigger picture.”
Compton disclosed afterwards that she’d sent tweets to her store manager during the panel, wanting to implement changes suggested by panelists. Not only will 4Kids re-invigorate its Book-of-the-Month-Club, but it will also hold staff meetings on the same date each month.
Commercial branding expert Sanford Stein, the principal of Stein, LLC in Minneapolis met with a more mixed reception from booksellers. Stein told booksellers that it was the “renaissance of the independent bookseller,” informing them that they can’t compete with Amazon.com, “nor should they.” Customers want quality inventories and hidden gems that don’t make it onto bestseller lists, Stein said. “Small is the new big,” and indie booksellers can take advantage, providing customers with “what they want as well as the unexpected surprises they don’t know they want.” Authenticity and providing the customer with an experience are key, Stein said, emphasizing the notion of “Assisted Discovery,” or taking the customer from being an observer in a retail establishment to being a participant. “Successful retailers go from selling goods to creating experiences."
About a half-dozen booksellers PW spoke to afterward said that Stein didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know, and criticized the overt promotion of himself and his memoir/business book, Retail Schmetail. “I wish that there’d been more book-related information,” one bookseller said, “I wish it had been tailored more to booksellers.” But Suzanne DeGaetano of Mac’s Backs – Books on Coventry in Cleveland praised Stein for an “inspirational retailer talk.” He, she said, “bolstered and boosted some of the things we knew we were doing. It was very affirming.”
While Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of Big Box Swindle reiterated what Stein had said earlier about consumer trends, she met with an overall more positive reception from a packed hall of booksellers at an afternoon plenary. Mitchell talked about the current resurgence in small businesses, much of it due to the proliferation of the Local First groups all over the country. “Almost all of these groups have a rabble-rousing bookseller,” she noted, pointing out that there have been about 150 such groups launched since 2002. These local groups, she noted, aren’t just raising awareness, but are influencing the direction in which local governments are moving, in terms of urban planning and economic development.
“We need more Local First organizations,” she said, “And they’ve never been easier to start.” After all, she pointed out, the movement is about more than simply enlisting allies – it’s also about making supporters into political advocates, who can lobby elected officials at the national, state, but especially at the local level, to enact policies that support local businesses over big box chain stores.
Explaining how elected officials at all levels have offered corporations subsidies that don’t really bring in more dollars and actually end up harming local businesses, Mitchell said, “The game is rigged.” Government policies and subsidies have hampered local businesses, because of the preference towards accommodating corporations even though statistics show that retail employment declines in communities with big box stores and poverty rates go up. It is essential, she emphasized, that booksellers participate in their communities, including the political realm, to ensure their survival. “Politicians love to talk about how small businesses are the backbone of America,” she said, “Call them on it.”