Rahva Raamat's flagship bookstore, in Viru Keskus in Tallinn, had the honor of being short-listed for the London Book Fair's Bookstore of the Year Award in 2016. "That would make us one of the four best bookstores in the world at the time," says Toomas Aasmäe, development manager for Rahva Raamat. What makes the store special? The same things that would make it feel familiar to someone from the United States: the store is well-stocked, well-lit, sleek, and full of sidelines. "We actually think that our best quality is coziness," Aasmäe says. "I think we have the coziest bookstores and are the friendliest in all of Europe."
The original Rahva Raamat, a short walk from the flagship bookstore and still in operation, was opened in 1912 by the publisher Gustav Pihlakas. Today, the chain comprises 10 stores in seven cities across the country. It runs a reading nook at Tallinn's international airport, complete with giant busts of famous writers, and is the country's largest retail book distributor, servicing libraries, department stores, and other bookstores. Turnover for the chain is approximately €18 million.
On a snowy weekday this past January, students sat with their laptops open, sipping lattes from the flagship store's cafe, an unsurprising scene in a country that is so digitally savvy. The chain hosts an online store that offers same-day delivery for books, and online sales now account for 10% of overall sales. "We have tried to create a bridge between online and off-line shopping," Aasmäe says.
The store's shopping app also caters to the Estonian character by offering a function for finding the location of a book inside a bookstore, "so you don't have to ask for help if you don't want to," Aasmäe says. And while the store does offer e-books, they have not proven especially popular. Currently, e-book sales account for just 2% of overall sales revenue. "The fact that e-books carry a 20% VAT, compared with just 12% for print books, doesn't help," Aasmäe says.
The stores carry a full complement of books published in Estonian and offer a selection in English. Online, the chain offers 300,000 titles through Gardner's in the U.K., with orders arriving in Tallinn in three business days.
Unfortunately, Aasmäe says, "our challenges here are the same as in any Western country: Amazon, which has a website that redirects customers to Germany; and the fact that sometimes it seems some people want to buy anything but books." Indeed, there are prominent displays of stationary imported from England, Pantone mugs, and Moleskine notebooks.
In 2017, the company launched its own publishing program, starting with 12 books. "We put our analytics to work and could see that customers were asking for books that other publishers were not interested in doing," Aasmäe says, "so we thought it would be a good idea to start. The books are sometimes re-issues, and some things that if you are in bookselling, are books based on new ideas." The competition is not fierce; though Estonia has approximately 1,200 publishers in name, only 20 or so publish more than 20 titles per year. "We are experimenting with this at first," Aasmäe says, "but we can see that there are opportunities."