Dane Neller, cofounder and CEO of On Demand Books (the maker of the Espresso Book Machine), has joined what he regards as “the retail renaissance”: the move away from big-box stores to smaller venues with strong customer service. In the spring of this year, he and a group of backers purchased the Shakespeare & Co. name, simultaneously negotiating a lease for the 5,000-sq.-ft. space on New York City’s Upper East Side that had been home to the last remaining Shakespeare & Co. outlet. At its height, the bookstore had six locations around the city.
Neller said that he was motivated to go into the book business by a desire to create “an incubator store” for the Espresso, but that he’s also looking to build a prototype for a new bookstore chain. “I’m going to grow,” Neller during an interview at the bookstore. Although he declined to give details, Neller said, “It’s my plan to open multiple Shakespeare stores. I view this as national. Certainly within the next two years, there will be more stores.”
Neller hasn’t wasted time in getting started. The store on Lexington Avenue, which will become the new brand’s flagship outlet, stayed open while undergoing an extensive makeover of the main floor this summer. The lower level, where college students buy textbooks and which has one of the best selections of plays in the city, will be redone during phase two of the remake.
What remains of the previous bookstore are the built-in wooden floor-to-ceiling bookcases and the store’s many knowledgeable staffers, including at least one bookseller who has been with Shakespeare & Co. for over three decades. Under the new owners, the store continues to maintain a strong selection of titles, including mysteries, fiction, biography, New York books, classics, and children’s and teen titles. If anything, the inventory is deeper because of the addition of a book machine, which is used to fill in inventory for branded classics, Harper titles, and other books that are not in stock but are part of Espresso’s seven million-title database.
Neller was CEO of Dean & DeLuca for eight years, and his retail philosophy remains close to that of the gourmet food chain: simple and minimalistic. Working at Dean & DeLuca also gave Neller experience growing a retail operation nationally and internationally, and he learned his way around bookstore cafés, having led Dean & DeLuca when it partnered with Borders.
Shakespeare & Co.’s new aesthetic is evident in the store’s redrawn logo: a line figure of the bard with a modern feel, and a sans serif typeface for the store name. The minimalist look extends to the displays, starting with the front window, in which seasonal titles and a few books printed on the book machine are framed by simple birch branches, and throughout the store’s interior. “Let the product be the hero. Let form follow function,” Neller declared, adding that he wants the customer to feel surrounded by books.
“When we took over the brand, I wanted to bring it forward,” Neller said. He views the Upper East Side store as a prototype for future Shakespeare & Co. bookstores, with its integration of trade and textbooks, a café surrounded by books, and a centrally located book machine. To make the book machine a more integral part of the store, a Writer’s Corner sign hangs over the Espresso. Customers can buy bookstore-branded blank books printed on the machine, or print their own books. Even a newly instituted kids’ story time will make use of the Espresso. Children will read a story, then write one of their own and print it on the book machine. Neller is also planning to encourage adult writers to use the book machine and is considering adding a writers’ room and an events space downstairs.
“Bookstores are about social gathering, expression, intimacy, service, and selection,” Neller said. “You shop online if you want to buy something. If you want to experience something, you have to come to a store.” That doesn’t mean that he has no online shopping plans for the bookstore. At present the store’s shakeandco.com website is geared for ordering textbooks. A redesigned site with the same clear lines and graphics of the bookstore, and the same books and merchandise—mostly branded T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, and a few educational toys—will go live later this fall. But there will be one notable difference from many bookstore websites: no e-books. That’s because Neller firmly believes that “print is very enduring.”
While it may be too soon to tell if the new Shakespeare & Co. is on the right track, two customers who overheard our conversation weighed in with their endorsements. One man who had stopped by for a cup of coffee said that he would never buy a book online. Ariel Glueck, a sophomore at nearby Hunter College, praised the redesigned store and said that she wanted to work there. She also wanted to write a book and print it there someday.
Despite the encouraging remarks from those two customers, Neller is not complacent about the new bookstore brand. “Retail’s about experimentation,” he said. “You constantly have to test—you have to be willing to take chances.”