Bigger isn't always better, at least when it comes to bookstores. That's what Pam Price, and her partners Lee Brown, Becky Jaques, Wendy Slater, Deb Twining and Mary Warner, have found at the 1,200-square-foot The Book Shop of Beverly Farms on Boston's North Shore, which they bought in 1997. Last year, the store, which has been in continual operation in a former barbershop for the past 34 years, had its best year ever.
"We never closed for a day, even when we painted the interior," said manager/book buyer Price, whose background is in college publishing. To ensure continued success, Price and another set of partners bought the building last April, which also includes a rental unit. "It became clear to us that the building is part of the experience of shopping at a 'real bookstore,' " said Price. "It's charming and cozy--a real antidote to bigness."
By accentuating the positive aspects of small-store shopping, Price et al. have turned around a once pokey bookstore at a time when many have succumbed to the twin threats of online retailing and chain superstores. For example, The Book Shop is one of the few bookstores that still maintains hundreds of house accounts.
In addition, on Price's watch, the store cut back its Thursday-night hours; it's now open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and closes on Sundays. Not being in a big city enabled Price to find ways to accommodate customers who chafe at short hours. "If someone can't get here by 5 o'clock," Price told PW, "we're happy to leave a book by our back door in a little plastic bag." Nor has the store computerized its stock of 15,000 to 20,000 titles. It relies on the card inventory system initiated by the original owners--although Price's husband did bring the store into the 21st century when he set up a Web page for The Book Shop at www.realbookshop.com.
The store is divided into three rooms on the main floor, for paperbacks, hardcovers and gifts. It has an active children's section upstairs, and children's books account for roughly one-third of The Book Shop's sales.
"In a small town, people come here on Saturday on their way to birthday parties," said Price. "We do book fairs, and summer reading is big for us. We call the schools in March and get the reading lists." Local authors tend to do best, both upstairs and down. One of the store's kids' bestsellers is Tor Takes a Trip (Plaidswede Pub.) by Beverly artist Edythe Ghen. It tracks a young harbor seal's journey from Rockport to Beverly Farms. In adult books, local author John Updike is a perennial favorite, as are titles about the sea. Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage (Norton) by Deborah Cramer and The North Shore (Commonwealth Editions) by Joseph E. Garland are both strong sellers.
With a staff of nine--which includes Marion Adams, who helped found the store--The Book Shop is able to provide programs that larger stores can't, such as the Elf Service. "During the fall and holiday season," explained Price, "We hear people say, 'I'd love to have this book.' And we say, "We know how you can get it.' " Price maintains a large list of customer phone numbers, and often calls the person's spouse at work. "It's been 100% satisfaction guaranteed," said Price. Another personalized gift service is the Book of the Every Other Month Club. "It's a great Mother's Day, Father's Day or Christmas present," said Price. The customer specifies a dollar amount and the staff takes care of the rest. Recently, when the gas station across the street started doing inspections, The Book Shop added a "Lube and Browse" program. "A lot of people have discovered us that way," Price told PW. "They come in and browse while their car is being serviced."
The Book Shop is a full-service/full-price bookstore, but it discounts the New York Times hardcover bestsellers and is considering switching to the Book Sense list. It also offers two discount programs for young people who don't mind getting caught reading. "If a kid draws a picture of a character from a book, they get a 10% discount, or if they bring in a photo of themselves reading a book, they get a discount," said Price, who posts the pictures in the store.
"Several generations have shopped here," said Price. "Sometimes young adults will come back to visit and say, 'Oh, my God. It's exactly the same.' " It's true that the physical space is much the same, but over the past five years, Price has instituted changes where she believes it matters most--in inventory. "It's the books that change," she said. "Having what the community wants, the books that people ask for, is our goal." For her, their Ingram rep's moniker for the store best captures what she wants The Book Shop to be: "a big small bookstore."