On a cool Wednesday evening in late July, I drove out over the Oakland hills to give a reading at Rakestraw Books in Danville, Calif. Traffic had held us up and by the time I arrived at 7:00 there were almost 100 people in the store. The audience was made up primarily of women, and they were talking to one another and waving hello across the folding chairs. Nearly all of them, it seemed, knew owner Mike Barnard. And Barnard knew them—not only their names, but their reading tastes—favorite books and authors—and their husbands' tastes and the ages of their children. He knew who had read my first novel, The Danish Girl (Penguin), and who in Danville were transplants from Southern California. He knew who among his thousands of customers would like a historical novel set in the orange groves of Pasadena, and he made sure they were there.
Rakestraw Books is a 2,000-sq.-ft. general trade bookstore that carries more than 15,000 titles; has five employees, including Barnard; and will put on more than 40 author events between September and December this year, each one maestroed by Barnard, who bought the store in 1995, when he was 25 years old. The store is located in the village-like downtown of Danville, Calif., a wealthy suburb of San Francisco. Its neighbors include a Peet's coffee shop, a farmer's market, a toy store and an upscale grocery. At the far end of the parking lot is the trailhead for the Iron Horse, a hiking path through the grassy hills that loom above Danville. Rakestraw's location puts it in the town's commercial and social center, and Barnard plays the role of local opinion maker: people go for a hike, buy an iced latte, stop by Rakestraw to ask Barnard what's new, and then run into a friend in the parking lot and show off the book that Barnard has just sold them. His influence in Danville reaches far beyond the plate glass of his store.
Rakestraw Books opened in 1973 in a different location and was run for 22 years by Brian and Mary Harvey. Throughout the '70s and '80s, it played a vital civic role, bringing authors to town, conducting workshops and even organizing a subscription concert series in the store. But by the mid-'90s, faced with competition in the surrounding suburbs, its inventory had thinned and its event programming had slowed. As time passed, Rakestraw was beginning to lose its most valuable asset: its reputation in the community.
Around this time, Barnard was in graduate school studying to become a professor of history but was quickly becoming disillusioned with academe. Barnard, who is tall and has a thatch of dark blond hair above a high forehead and whose first love has always been reading, decided to switch professions. He attended the Denver Publishing Institute during the summer of 1994, thinking it would lead to a move to New York to become a book editor. Two events in Denver changed his life: one evening, Joyce Meskis, the owner of the Tattered Cover in Denver, came to speak about her renowned bookstore. A few days later, the students took a trip down to Colorado Springs to visit the Chinook Bookshop and its owners, Dick and Judy Noyes. Barnard had never thought about becoming a bookseller until he met Meskis and the Noyes. He graduated from the Denver program with the goal of owning his own bookstore within 12 months.
Barnard returned to the Bay Area and went to work at a Barnes & Noble in Concord. Three months later, he contacted John Evans and Allison Reed at Diesel Bookstore in Oakland and took a job on the sales floor, working through the holiday season. He then spent a few months writing the store's operations manual—a task that forced him to think through every one of the store's processes, policies and procedures. In April 1995, Barnard heard a rumor that Rakestraw, in his hometown of Danville, was for sale. By July 1, 12 months after Denver, Barnard closed the deal on the store. At 25, he was one of the youngest bookstore owners in the U.S.
"What other people call 'one-on-one marketing,' " says Barnard, "we call relationships and knowing the customers." I received an illustration of this when I visited Rakestraw last July while on tour for my novel Pasadena (Random House). During the question and answer portion of my reading and then the autographing session, it became apparent that many people in the audience, maybe 40%, had already read Pasadena, which is rare for a book that's been on sale for only a couple of weeks. When I asked Barnard about this, he said, "I told them to."
A few weeks later, Barnard expanded upon this, giving me a sense of what he does to create a successful event. Just as a publisher puts together a campaign for a new release, so does Barnard for any author visiting his store. He reads the book as early as possible, even if it's still in manuscript. He and his staff begin talking about the book months before publication, recommending it in advance to customers who have read the author's other titles or who have enjoyed similar books. The month before the book is released, Barnard puts a teaser review in his newsletter, which goes out to more than 5,000 people in the mail and even more electronically. (He makes sure that editors, publishers, publicists and agents in New York are on his mailing lists as well.) Then a full review appears in the newsletter upon the book's publication.
Barnard places a large initial order to create multiple displays around his shop. When he sells those early copies, he always mentions the upcoming event, courting his audience. For those who cannot attend, he encourages them to leave their copies to be signed. This creates a large display behind the counter for other people to see, letting others know what Danville is reading and talking about. "People see it and don't want to be left out," said Barnard. Before my event at Rakestraw, Barnard had already sold 170 copies of Pasadena.
Four to six weeks after publication is the ideal timing for an event, he said. The media that bring in the most customers are the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, and, to a lesser extent, the San Francisco Chronicle. Because of its location, people pass through Rakestraw after dropping by the farmer's market or the coffee store, and a local buzz builds about what Barnard has read and what he's excited about. People come to the reading prepared, explained Barnard, "because they want that kind of dialogue with the author, and because it's a social event. They meet their friends and see the same people and they want to be a part of the reading."
What Barnard doesn't say, but is apparent to anyone who has visited his store, is that many of his customers want to be a part of Rakestraw; they want to be in Barnard's circle of conversation and gossip, authors and books, reading and ideas. "We convey our enthusiasm," he said matter-of-factly. "We never fake it." It's old-fashioned handselling, and it works.