Starting with the advent of computerized inventory control systems in the 1980s, bookstore owners have struggled with technology. Should they have e-commerce Web sites and e-newsletters—and what about Facebook and Twitter? Now, two corporate-oriented, techno-savvy first-time booksellers/bookstore owners are trying to bring their legacy stores—77-year-old Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., and 33-year-old The Booksmith in San Francisco—into the 21st century. Can they help other booksellers do the same?
Harvard Book Store
“Tough times give you an opportunity to innovate,” says Jeff Mayersohn, who, with his wife, Linda Seamanson, purchased Harvard Book Store just before an abrupt slowdown in retail sales in Massachusetts last fall. Mayersohn, who worked in the telecommunications industry for 30 years, stresses that he doesn’t believe in technology for its own sake. In fact, many of the things he’s successfully tested to date, like holding the store’s first holiday warehouse sale, are relatively low tech, and occasionally as slow as dial-up. Hundreds of customers came to the warehouse sale, waiting as long as 45 minutes to check out.
After taking over the store, Mayersohn says that the most important thing he learned from meeting with customers was that they didn’t want him to change the spirit or the tone of Harvard Book Store. “So what we’re doing,” he says, “is changing the peripherals.” That includes setting up a system that enables customers to text event@hbooks to find out what’s happening at the store that day. It also involves loading old-fashioned—looking wooden flash drives (imprinted with the Harvard Book Store logo) with author interviews and sending them to members of the store’s Signed First Edition Club.
However, Mayersohn is turning to a few of his Web 2.0 friends for help with increasing market share. He is particularly excited about Textflows.com, a site that he describes as “turning everything into poetry”—it displays text as an animated flow. The store is beta-testing its Textflows “channel,” and when it’s up and running, Mayersohn plans to mount a monitor in a store window so customers can watch. He’s also begun revamping the store’s Web site, Harvard.com, a year-long process, so that it mirrors more of the store’s strengths—easier access to author talks, increased focus on individual booksellers and the ability to browse for books, rather than just search for specific titles. In addition, Mayersohn says, he’s looking at social networking to expand Harvard’s Web presence.
Before he purchased the store, Mayersohn bought a Kindle, but, he says, “our interaction with the book is more encompassing than Amazon would like to believe.” He compares the difference between reading a physical book and an e-book to that of looking at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or on a PC. Not that Mayersohn’s ready to write off e-books by any stretch—“At some point,” he says, “we’d like to bundle electronic books with the physical books.” Even with the advent of e-books, the store’s role, says Mayersohn, is the same: supplying an opportunity for people to exchange ideas with authors and to share a sense of community.
At present he sees more potential in print on demand, which he would like to pair with another recent low-tech Harvard innovation, local eco-friendly bicycle delivery service via MetroPed. Depending on the ZIP code, customers get same-day or next-day delivery for a low, flat rate. Because of the customizable nature of POD, Mayersohn is already playing with potential copylines: “Any book ever written customized for you” or perhaps “Any book ever written delivered by a green vehicle to your door.”
Praveen Madan, who has an engineering degree and an M.B.A., was a consultant with A.T. Kearney and served as a v-p of Trilogy Software before buying The Booksmith in Haight-Ashbury in October 2007 with his wife, Christin Evans. The couple decided to have their own store after Bay Area booksellers declined their consulting services, which they had offered gratis, and after launching LitMinds.org, a social networking site aimed at readers, authors and independent booksellers. The tagline they chose represents what they see as the task ahead: “Building the independent bookstore for the 21st century.”
Madan spent most of the first year learning the business, from controlling inventory to preventing shoplifting and connecting with the community. As a result, he and Evans staunched the store’s losses of 3% to 5% for each of the previous five years and grew sales 12%. “We’re just getting warmed up,” says Madan, whose long-term plans for competing with his toughest competitors—Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders—are based on innovation/technology, community and customer experience.
“A lot of bookstores have become too risk-averse,” Madan says. “They’re too conservative about money.” That’s not a charge that he wants to see leveled at The Booksmith. Some of the changes he and Evans have made are physical, like remodeling the interior of the store, which should be completed later this spring. In addition to updating the space, they wanted to make more room for a book concierge. The concept, borrowed from the hotel industry and Apple Stores, gives shoppers an expert they can seek out at the store.
Other changes involve serving emerging writers better. For example, The Booksmith dedicated the month of January to new writers and has begun posting author interviews online, as well as listing some store events. “None of these ideas helps sell books,” Madan acknowledges. “It’s more about having a larger conversation with your community.” Not that he’s unhappy when book sales result, as they did from a YouTube posting by erotica writer Rachel Kramer Bussel, who pointed out her favorite sexy titles (and chocolate) at the store (www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRiaXX9_y0s).
“Most bookstores struggle in knowing how to use technology effectively, including us. There is no bookstore, with the exception of Powell’s, that uses the Web well,” Madan says. “We believe that the days when bookstores could ignore the Web are over, as are the days of having boring, static sites that accompany excuses like 'we only use our Web site for informational purposes.’ ” Next month, he and Evans plan to launch a new site that makes better use of social platforms to build a broader, ongoing conversation with readers and writers. They are also creating a new staff position, Web marketer.
But even before they hire one, they have already embraced social media and have thousands of fans on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LibraryThing, LitMinds, MySpace and Yelp, among others. Thanks to social media, the store has cut its advertising budget to almost zero by no longer running print ads, says Madan. At the same time, attendance at The Booksmith’s events has gone up. As an example, Madan points to an event the store hosted last fall for Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The Booksmith sold more than 600 copies, more than any other Gaiman event, and spent less than $50 on targeted Facebook ads.
Despite his enthusiasm for online sales and marketing, Madan recognizes that most customers live within two square miles of his store. “Our goal is to be that place where people feel comfortable hanging out—where you meet authors and know the staff by name.” The Booksmith delivers books to people who aren’t feeling well and helps with community fund-raising projects. In order to use technology effectively, bookstores have to be active in their community, Madan notes—a message that’s not so different from bookstores a decade, or even a century, ago.