Even booksellers far from the larger markets that attract Barnes & Noble and Borders feel the heat and have to be creative in bookselling -- especially in the age of the Internet. Consider three independent bookstores located in a bucolic area that despite appearances is all the more competitive because it attracts some sophisticated city transplants and weekenders as well as tourists, all used to the expansiveness of book buying in more built-up areas.
The stores, in Dutchess and Columbia counties in New York State, two to three hours north of Gotham, share some approaches, among them emphasizing local-interest books and national books by local authors, offering personal services and creating connections with individuals and groups in the community.
But each has taken some different tacks:
one 35-year-old store opened a new section that sells country gifts, local jams and homemade candy;
a bookseller created a local business and professional association to strengthen the local business community;
the same bookseller organized a Volkswagen Beetle rally after learning that the author of a book about Beetles lived nearby;
one bookseller sticks to selling books and books only and cultivates the kinds of customers who frequent nearby cultural events.
Adding Country Stuff
The Book Center and Country Touch, Rhinebeck, N.Y., is the 35-year-old bookstore that opened a section selling country items. Called Country Touch, it is in the back of the store, which opened in 1964 and is now owned by Jim Ellithorpe and his wife, Kelli, who both bought it from his parents 10 years ago.
What spurred the decision to open Country Touch? "We were looking for a way to set the bookstore apart from other stores," explained Jim Ellithorpe. "We can't compete title-to-title with Barnes & Noble, so we try to do things they can't do. We already beat them on special orders. Country Touch brings people into the store who may not have come in otherwise."
In addition to the gifts, jam and candy, the 1900-sq.-ft. store stocks more than 14,000 books, with an emphasis on fiction (4000 adult titles and 6000 children's) and a large children's section.
"Local-interest books do very well," added Gail Haskins, manager and nine-year veteran of the Book Center. That section includes locally published books like Walks and Rambles in Dutchess and Putnam Counties by Barbara Turco, The True Story of Fala (about FDR's dog in nearby Hyde Park) by Margaret L. Suckley and Alice Dalgliesh and national books by local authors such as Dinotopia by James Gurney (HarperCollins).
Haskins estimates that 90% of the customers during the week are locals, while on weekends the same percentage are tourists and people who own weekend houses in the area.
Local competition includes Barnes & Noble; Waldenbooks; Merritt Bookshop, with two nearby locations; and Omega Books, a New Age, philosophy and religion store across the street that is part of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies.
Largely because of the weekend crowd, Ellithorpe also feels in competition, if indirectly, with New York City bookstores. "People who come up from the city are used to large bookstores and cutthroat pricing. It takes a little effort to win people over. It's price versus service."
For example, Haskins says, "To get customers to come back, we do as much as possible. If we don't have it, we order it or help them get it, even from another store."
The formula appears to be working. Sales have increased in the last few years, perhaps in part due to increased tourism and an improved economy.
Or as the slogan his late mother coined puts it: "Big enough to serve you. Small enough to care."
Books, Community, Action
The focus of Blackwood & Brouwer Booksellers, Kinderhook, N.Y., is "to have a good bookstore that is active in the community and is a springboard to do things," said Rondi Brower, who with her parents, Jean and Dick, owns the store. When the family moved to the Dutch community of Kinderhook (literally "children's corner"), they decided to use the old Dutch spelling of the family name in the store's name. "And we rue it every day," Jean told PW. "It just confuses everyone."
As the emphasis ontheir family's Dutch heritage implies, the store aims for strong ties with the community and customer loyalty through some outstanding promotions.
In the first category, for example, Jean Brower founded the Kinderhook Business and Professional Association to strengthen the local business community and help make Kinderhook into a destination for visitors.
As for events, consider some of the things Jean, the store's chief marketer, has staged. When, for example, she learned of weekender Kate McLeod's book, Beetlemania: The Story of the Car That Captured the Hearts of Millions (Smithmark), on vintage Volkswagen Beetles, she organized a car rally with the Hudson and Mohawk Society of VW Owners. On Mother's Day this year, society members rallied down Route 9 and filled the parking lot next to the bookstore with old VWs. A photograph of Jean at the rally in her own 1975 VW convertible was featured on Albany television shows and newspapers.
In a similar vein, the store stages regular signings with local authors and artists. Among others, they have featured Cassandra Danz, author of the Mrs. Greenthumbs series, and Emily Arnold McCully, who wrote and illustrated the 1993 Caldecott Medal winner, Mirette on the High Wire (Putnam).
The store also co-sponsors presentations, events and book signings with local organizations. When Dr. Patricia West, curator of Martin Van Buren's home, Lindenwald, wrote Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums (Smithsonian Institution Press), the bookstore co-sponsored her talk at the Kinderhook Library.
Rondi Brower characterizes the store's inventory as "eclectic," strong on mysteries, children's books, gardening and cookbooks. Dick Brower selects "Dick's Picks," which are primarily police procedurals with a regional twang, such as The Ax by Donald Westlake, Bellows Falls by Archer Mayor and Secret Prey by John Sandford. "If you like one, you'll like everything else he recommends," noted Rondi. "Customers walk in and say, 'I'm going on a trip. I need a Dick's Pick.' We encourage that kind of customer."
Focus on Books
Unlike so many of its fellow booksellers, Chatham Booksellers, Chatham, N.Y., in Columbia County, has eschewed selling coffee, gifts -- anything that is not a book.
The 2200-sq.-ft. store, which has expanded since its founding 22 years ago, has roughly 400,000 books, with rooms dedicated to remainders, gift books and children's.
Muriel Faxon, who worked in the store for 16 years before purchasing it six years ago, told PW that customers "like the ambience of a store like this. Our customers have the time and inclination to spend time here."
The store also has ties with the local school district, home-schoolers and local businesses. Real estate agents, for example, promote -- and entice prospective buyers with -- the "excellent bookstore."
Customers include the many people who visit from the nearby Berkshires, home of the Tanglewood music festival and summer theater.
The store stays open seven days a week, and displays emphasize high-quality fiction. Recently a round, wooden table just inside the store's entrance held such titles as Andrea Marciano's Rules of the Wild (Knopf) and Alison Lurie's Last Resort (Holt).
"We try to keep all the displays and windows fresh," Faxon said.
Local bestsellers include Marie Winn's Red-Tails in Love (Pantheon) and Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone (Random).