We wondered if a fix was in. Maybe two fixes. First, for the second year in a row, a North Carolina store has won PW's Bookseller of the Year Award.
Then again, maybe it's coincidence that the Tar Heel State has produced two such good bookstores: Malaprop's Bookstore/ Café in Asheville and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.
Second, on the day PW was visiting Quail Ridge and owner Nancy Olson took us onto the store floor while talking about Quail Ridge's close ties to authors, she delightedly called out to a man who seemed just as pleased to see her. They hugged and cooed, and she quickly introduced "Chuck," whom she thought I was sure to know.
It took a few moments, but it soon became apparent that Chuck, who was telling Olson how happy he was to see her and be back at the store, was none other than Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain. For an hour and a half (after all, Raleigh is in the South) we all sat at the round table by the store's fireplace—joined by poet Al Maginnes (The Light in Our Houses)—and leisurely chatted about traveling and titles we've read recently, as well as about Quail Ridge Books.
Frazier, who lived in the area year round in the 1990s while working on Cold Mountain, says it took some time to get used to the store. "It was not an anonymous shopping experience. I was not used to being asked what I was interested in and what I was reading," he says.
Olson became a friend of Frazier long before he published Cold Mountain. "I knew he was working on something, but we never talked about it," she says. Then came the joy of helping a newly published friend: Olson notes proudly that she sold 6,000 copies of Cold Mountain, 1,200 of them at his first reading at Quail Ridge. At that reading were some of what Olson calls "the gang," local writers whom she counts as friends, among them Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, Clyde Edgerton and Jill McCorkle.
She was delighted to be with Frazier at the National Book Award ceremonies, where he won for best novel. "It was a defining moment, the pinnacle of my bookselling career," she says. "I was so excited I couldn't even look at him."
Olson is just as closely connected to another important group in the book experience—readers, her customers. On the day of PW's visit, she can't seem to go anywhere in the store or in town without people coming up to her and congratulating her on yet another award or form of recognition.
Besides being named Bookseller of the Year—which is trumpeted on banners and displays inside and outside the store—she was recently named Tar Heel of the Week by the News and Observer, a newspaper with state-wide readership. Several people who greet Olson call her "Tar Heel" and joke about her increased celebrity. "Will you keep talking to me?" one customer asks.
"Bookseller of the Year has brought tremendous recognition for us, and quite a lot of business," Olson says. She finds it especially pleasing that "customers feel that they've gotten the award. They tell me, 'We knew it. It's our store. Now everyone knows it.' "
A Capital Challenge
Through a powerful events program, outreach, great word of mouth, working with schools, libraries and other community groups, stocking great titles, focusing on customer service and creating lasting bonds with writers and readers, Quail Ridge has seen sales grow in double digits almost every year of its 17 years in existence.
Despite the concentration of universities and colleges, corporations, research companies and the state capital in the Triangle (which is bounded roughly by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill), this is not an easy area in which to sell books. North Carolina is "still a relatively poor state in its tax structures and education," Olson says. "It's taken a lot of time to change from an agrarian economy. Just five miles out of the Triangle, it's dirt-poor."
Still, Raleigh is a "nice town," Olson says. Home to some 35,000 state employees, the city has several new and renovated museums downtown, which is about three miles from Quail Ridge.
The capital is also home to a number of colleges and universities—North Carolina State University, Meredith College, Peace College, St. Mary's College, Shaw University and St. Augustine's College. Not far away are Duke University, in Durham, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Since 1994, Quail Ridge has been in the Ridgewood Shopping Center, a handsome, busy strip mall that features a branch of Wellspring (a Whole Foods Market), an Eckerd drugstore, a wine store, yarn shop, art gallery—"a group of interesting businesses," as Olson puts it. (Earlier, the store had been in the Quail Corner Shopping Center in North Raleigh, where it was known as Books at Quail Corner.)
The 10,000-sq.-ft. store stocks about 70,000 titles and has about $3 million in sales. In three years between 1996 and 1999, inventory grew 32% and sales rose 46%. Last year sales growth slowed, to a "mere" 9%, the store's first year without double-digit growth. But so far, 2001 has been good. January was "incredible," Olson says, with sales up more than 50%, in large part because of former president Jimmy Carter's appearance for An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood (S&S). (Without him, sales would have risen about 30%.) February was down a little again, but March rose "with a bang."
Olson admits that the store makes little profit, but in the same breath, she adds, "I'm satisfied because I'm doing a great community service, and I have a great life.
"It comes down to one thing: keeping focused," she continues. Beyond having a mission or philosophy, which in her case is a belief in "ethics in business and customer service," a store must "stick to it."
From the beginning of her bookselling career, her "bible" has been In Search of Excellence, the Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. business bestseller of the 1980s She says it "transformed my thinking." The book's key message, as she sees it: "Making the customer happy and running a business with integrity."
The All-Important Staff
The store has 24 full-time and 10 part-time employees, all of whom wear nametags with their first name in large letters. Perhaps the most important member of the staff is Sarah Goddin, who joined the company after running her own bookstore, Wellington's, in nearby Cary for 10 years. (She sold it to a group of customers who moved and expanded it. The store, which then had several superstores open near to it, has since closed.)
Olson describes their working relationship this way: "I do the big dreaming and philosophizing. She's the implementer. I couldn't do it without her."
Every month Olson and Goddin, who works three days a week, examine the store's profit-and-loss statement to see what's in line and what's not. Recently the pair were examining payroll stats and have been cost-cutting by not filling every position as soon it opens up.
The store does not have a formal strategic plan or annual goals. But Olson notes she does not want to grow in size. She could have expanded another 2,000 square feet recently, but decided not to—"I want to try to make what I've got better and sell more books," she explains.
Olson shares financial figures with the staff, and Goddin occasionally does an exercise she calls "how a bookstore makes a profit or not." One example: a discussion of how it would affect the bottom line if Quail Ridge sold one more $10 book per employee per day.
Managers meet every week, and the full staff meets once or twice a month. "One of our big strengths is communication," Goddin says. At the meetings, everyone exchanges information about author appearances, for example, and they hear what Olson calls her mantra: "We have to be better than the chains."
Starting pay for employees with no experience is $8 an hour, $9 for those with experience. Quail Ridge offers health insurance benefits to full-timers and is flexible about scheduling, particularly for parents. Employees receive three reviews in the first year, at three, six and nine months, and annual reviews thereafter.
Quail Ridge sometimes conducts what Goddin calls "spot audits" to see if staff members greet customers in a certain amount of time, if the picks are up to date, etc. The staff then goes over the results of the audit to assess how well it's doing.
The store maintains a five-page checklist for the floor in general, and each area has its own checklist. Goddin calls it a "struggle" to continue training to the higher levels. But the store is working on that. One particular problem at the moment is the quality of the displays, since "no one on staff right now is good at it." Olson laughs, "I know I'm being nitpicky, but the details add up."
Olson says she would rather have "someone overqualified and superefficient for a short time than someone who would struggle along with the complexities of bookselling for years.
"My dream," Olson continues, "is to have a professional bookselling staff that is smaller, tighter, more efficient, productive and paid well." But in the same breath, she says, "The nature of retail works against my dream." In an effort to mold that core of professional booksellers, the store has created a master bookseller position (a concept borrowed in part from Joseph-Beth Booksellers, PW's Bookstore of the Year in 1996)—for experienced booksellers who do not want to be managers. They get increased benefits and salary—as well as recognition. There is already one master bookseller, Susan Alff, who concentrates on ordering, as well as a trainee for children's master bookseller.
Just in Time—With a Twist
One of the biggest changes Quail Ridge made in recent years is what Olson calls "a new radical way of ordering." The store employs a just-in-time model but with a twist: instead of buying on a just in time basis from wholesalers—the standard model—they buy primarily from publishers.
The approach allows the store to maintain "a range of titles." Goddin adds, "We can differentiate ourselves from others." And it's extremely important from a business point of view: "We deal direct for the most part because of unfair discounts," Olson says. "The extra points are really important." The store changed its ordering about four years ago, after Olson, Goddin and three buyers attended a financial planning seminar run by Willard Dickerson.
Quail Ridge uses the daily sales record to reorder. Buying is done electronically, much of it through PUBNET. (The store uses WordStock for its inventory control.) In cases where it doesn't get free freight, Quail Ridge uses UPS Collect. Because most big publishers can supply books in two or three days and most small publishers have improved service, it is only rarely that the store has "gotten stuck" without stock.
The store doesn't hesitate to use wholesalers, so if five copies of a book are needed, for example, it will order one from a wholesaler to have immediately and the other four from the publisher, on its better terms. Quail Ridge also uses wholesalers for special orders, which totaled nearly $200,000 last year.
The new approach has increased turns at the store to a respectable 3.6 and increased business. "Some reps had their doubts," Olson says, "but now that have confidence because they see we reorder daily." As a result, Goddin notes, "there are many fewer titles we take a big stand on. Maybe the big guys like Grisham or regional authors."
As for other opportunities created by technology, Quail Ridge has been selective. The store "made a conscious decision" not to go into e-commerce in a big way. It has a link to Book Sense and regularly receives e-mails for orders, but takes few orders through its Web site.
The store sends a weekly e-mail newsletter, Quail Mail, which Olson calls "a great marketing tool." It has 3,000 subscribers and has effectively replaced the store's old print newsletter, Quail's Quill, which hasn't been published in more than a year. Quail Mail is usually the equivalent of two paper pages and lists bestseller and events.
On the Floor
Quail Ridge aims for what Olson calls "a balanced inventory." For example, she says, some customers ask why the store carries romances and thrillers. "We need them to have balance—and pay the rent." Regional fiction is "big," helped by the Southern renaissance, and is the second largest section, after general fiction. Because the store is in the Bible Belt, Olson says, "We try not to carry the same kind of religious books" available at the many other stores in the area that stock Christian titles. Quail Ridge also has an extensive Judaica section serving a relatively small Jewish clientele. And not surprisingly for a bookstore in the South, military history and Civil War titles are very popular.
Biography is another large section and includes a new area called "Presidents and First Families," which aims to have "the top books on each president. "We're selling more and more of these books, and thought we'd try something different."
As befits its role aiding and encouraging writers, the store has a strong writing and publishing section. Poetry is an expanding section. "The more attention we give to it," Olson says, "the more sales rise." Another "beefed up" section is sociology; in this, as in some other specialty areas, Quail Ridge has relied on experts in the field who teach at area schools for title recommendations. Olson is personally very interested in "international literature." To her great satisfaction, publishers are doing more in this area.
Asked about sections that have done poorly, Olson mentions computer books, which the store cut back and stopped offering for a while. It now relies on Koen Book Distributors to supply its computer book section.
The store prominently displays titles for its upcoming author events, highlighted with publicity stills of the authors, and also spotlights Book Sense picks and the store's own noteworthy titles. The store's extensive picks section displays customer and staff favorites. And in an unusual arrangement, the store has a "rep recommends" area, where sales reps have written up some of the books they think customers should read. Asked about this, Olson says, "It helps give diversity to our selection."
Other displays focus on award winners, including recipients of the Nobel Prize, NBA, Booker and Pulitzer. Some, like a recent jazz display, are multimedia, featuring books and CDs.
Olson seems to leave no stone unturned in selling and merchandising. In the store's bathroom, "one of the nicest around," she boasts (and she's right), is a basket filled with March/April Book Sense 76 brochures. In another sly arrangement, she sells New York Times bestsellers at a discount, but the section is on the back of an island as one enters the store and a bit difficult to find. (The store also offers a Readers Club program; for $10 a year, customers receive a 10% discount on purchases.)
Quail Ridge stocks some 600 magazines, as well as maps and music. The music section specializes in classical, but also carries jazz, including blues, Southern, Appalachian and Celtic works. Altogether it has about 3,000 music titles and books on music and musicians.
Most titles in the store's extensive audiobook section are rented out. "Rentals are dynamite," Olson says. "They're high maintenance but high profit, and people love them." Unabridged titles are increasingly popular, and books on CD are in demand. The most popular audios are fiction, mystery, biography, YA and children's titles.
The store carries a few traditional sidelines—stationery, blank books, greeting cards, postcard books and calendars. "We've made some terrible mistakes in sidelines," Olson laments. The worst involved selling T-shirts, an experiment that started well, with book-related themes, but expanded so much that "we grew into a T-shirt store. But then we never had the right size or design."
Book Fairs, School Sales
Quail Ridge has a busy calendar. Including author appearances, children's storytelling hours, book fairs, outside sales, monthly forums for teachers and librarians, talking to groups and book club meetings, it holds some 1,800 events a year.
With a staff of five, the store's separately incorporated book fair subsidiary holds some 40—45 events a year at schools, churches, synagogues and other outside sales venues. During the fall, the busiest season, the store does as many as eight book fairs a week and had sales of as much as $30,000 at them, with most such events averaging $8,000. Book fair sales last year totaled more than $200,000.
School and instructional sales are "huge and getting bigger," despite the store's lack of marketing in that area, Olson says. The store is "very competitive with discounts." Many other sellers offer 20% off, so Quail Ridge goes a percentage point better, offering a 21% discount.
The children's section increased by 2,000 square feet in 1997, when the store expanded into new space. Praising children's buyer Carol Moyer, Olson says, "We are committed to our philosophy of the best books, not rows and rows of series like the chains have." She boasts, "We know the books inside and out." Including book fairs and school sales, children's books account for about a third of Quail Ridge's sales.
The store hosts a range of reading groups, including three children's groups and an "enchanted adults" group for adults talking about children's books. The store's most popular book club focuses on religion and ethics. There are also mystery, history and general fiction clubs.
The store encourages connections with the book clubs it does not directly sponsor by presenting suitable book club titles twice a year. At wine-and-cheese soirees, four staff members present recommended titles. The last one attracted 80 people.
Quail Ridge hosts many fundraisers, which it does to "help the community," as Nancy Olson put its. "We've made many friends this way." One of the most striking of the many groups the store supports is Books for Kids, which Olson herself founded in 1999 with a Quail Ridge customer who is no longer involved. The foundation obtains new books that are distributed through local groups to underprivileged children. The foundation has given way some 2,600 books.
Olson's love of books and bookselling goes back to her earliest days: "I suffer from the same background of most booksellers: I love to read." She was, as she puts it, "raised" in the Richmond, Va., public library, "a trip that family made every week."
Eventually she married and raised several boys, working "here and there," but not in bookselling. In 1981, when she moved to Raleigh, there was no independent with "the type of offerings I wanted." At the same time, she had empty-nest syndrome and worked in a mental hospital, which was "fulfilling but exhausting."
But she got a bookselling itch, and while traveling with her husband, she visited some 24 bookstores and talked in detail with their owners about the business. "All but one was encouraging," she says. (Her husband, Jim, works in the store part-time and has developed a business conducting informal concert and vineyard tours to Europe. Not surprisingly, Quail Ridge is the official supplier of books to these groups.)