The concept of creating marketing "stories" for gift shops has been successful for Event Network, in San Diego, the company that has managed and supplied books and gift items to more than 60 cultural institutions and attractions in North America since 1998.

Event Network's partners include zoos, aquariums, presidential libraries, botanical gardens, and museums. General merchandise manager Jim Johnson and his team of buyers are allowed access to archives and curatorial departments at such institutions as the Shedd Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York in order to fine-tune the right mix of books and other products at each venue. "We create the individual retail environment because we're adjusting to the institution and the customer," Johnson explains.

Categories in the purchasing division of Event Network include books, apparel, souvenirs, gifts, toy and plush, media, calendars, games, and geology. Johnson says that books account for a minimum of 15% of sales through the gift shops the company works with, although that percentage can rise dramatically depending on the institution. "At the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum, for instance, that number is actually closer to 30%," Johnson notes, "and the Lincoln Presidential Library also sells a much higher volume of books." A traveling exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls generated book sales of $500,000, and some venues, including the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum, have separate buildings that operate as freestanding bookstores and carry as many as 6,000 titles.

Event Network serves as the retail manager of all the stores it partners with, and its staff is responsible for all purchasing and distribution of products, which are shipped directly from the vendors, as well as staffing at each location. The institutions/museums receive 25% of sales, with the balance going to Event Network. All billing goes through Event Network's store support center in San Diego. "We operate the retail stores, and our presence is seamless and invisible to [customers], who assume the store is operated by the venue," says senior book buyer Michelle Olvera. In setting up each store, Event Network works to extend the venue's philosophy and how it wants its message conveyed, says Olvera. "Their priority is on education, and we honor and respect their vision." Because of that focus, science, history, and children's books are the strongest of Event Network's book categories.

Initial book buys and reorders are handled by Olvera and her staff, who regularly meet with publishers' reps and research titles that meet the needs of the various institutions. Event Network buys direct from publishers, but also uses wholesalers in order to meet minimum orders. "Our first option is nonreturnable," Olvera says. "We're a third-party retailer, and we have a revenue-sharing contractual agreement with the venues. Our strength is in volume purchasing, and we can't lose money on returns for freight purposes. We have to buy right, and are very conservative in our buys."

To augment its retailing services, Event Network entered the custom publishing business three years ago in partnership with Chris Capen at Beckon Books, a division of Favorite Recipes Press, and publishes exclusively for the institutions it serves. Its first title was the Shedd Aquarium Guide, followed by The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln by James Hume, which Olvera rescued from oblivion. "The Random House remainder group had the book, and then they went out of business," she says. "I thought this was a book that shouldn't go away, and had the idea to make it a more custom presentation." Event Network added leather binding, a ribbon, and gold embossing to the book and it's been selling briskly in the stores. The company also published the exhibition catalogue for the Harry Potter traveling exhibit, and is in production on new guidebooks for the Gettysburg institution and the American Museum of Natural History. "It's a collaborative effort between us and our partners," Olvera says. "Obviously, we're not in the publishing business, but we like to go out and find opportunities that might impact the sales in our institutions."

Event Network, which surpassed the $100-million sales mark last year, employs 70 people in its San Diego headquarters and close to 1,000 others, referred to as "Event Networkers," in their venue stores. President and founder Larry Gilbert says the company has a good relationship with publishers. "The industry really has been great to us," he says, "and we get tremendous support from the publishers in sustaining our partners. They've helped us establish custom author events and book programs in the communities where our venues are."