There are many retailers that aren't primarily bookstores but sell books that reach a good amount of people who don't shop in bookstores or even buy many books. Sometimes those customers feel intimidated by bookstores, or don't have bookstores nearby. Perhaps they need a "suggestion" for a book to go with a related nonbook product. These non-bookstore retail outlets now account for more than half of books sold, and they range from the book sections at general retail, discount and mass market stores like Wal-Mart, Costco and Target to drugstores and grocery stores. Books, of course, are found, too, in specialty retailers such as The Home Depot and Crate & Barrel and in many exotic locations. Some of the more intriguing are an upscale carwash in Los Angeles, art galleries and art supply stores, a few hair salons as well as brewpubs and coffee bars.
But because of their focus on books and love of language and reading, traditional booksellers are arguably the front line in spreading the word about books and reading—and expanding the market to reach people who either don't read books or read books only sporadically. Booksellers do this in a variety of ways and—as one bookseller put it—"constantly."
They work with all kinds of community organizations, schools and libraries, encouraging groups and individuals to meet at the store. They offer myriad events, including foreign-language and cooking classes, for example, that draw people not "just" interested in books. They also visit organizations, schools and libraries, whether to talk about books, co-sponsor fund raisers or sell books at their events. Booksellers run programs that bring children from poor and disadvantaged families into the store and help them to become comfortable with books and bookstores. They also involve seniors by visiting them or encouraging them to come to the store.
Consider how some booksellers and booklovers are making efforts to expand the market and reach people who might not otherwise know about them:
Bookstore as Ticket Agent
Liberty Bay Books, in Poulsbo, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle, is the main ticket seller for a local theater group, the Poulsbo Players, which has performances every Friday and Saturday night. The Players mention the store in posters and other materials, and newspaper articles about the Players' performances mention Liberty Bay, too. The theater holds about 100 people, for which the store often sells 50—60 tickets. "Sometimes there's a kid's show and a ballet company," says owner Suzanne Droppert. The 1,500-sq.-ft. store accepts credit cards and chalks up any fees to overhead; it charges the Players nothing for the service.
"It's great advertising for me, and it's a different way of getting out in the community," she says. Perhaps most important, the ticket sales draw in people who otherwise would not become acquainted with the store. "People call all the time asking where we are located," Droppert says. "Then they come in and comment, 'This is a great little store. And you have coffee!' Sometimes they buy a book then. Sometimes they buy on other visits."
The store also sells many tickets to boaters who stay at Poulsbo's busy marina. "It's how they get introduced to the store," Droppert adds.
Kepler's Books & Magazines, Menlo Park, Calif., works with various community groups to reach disadvantaged families and children, among others who might not be regular readers.
Under one program, Kepler's helps homeless families, particularly homeless mothers, bring their children into the store. The store offers a discount and a homeless organization provides the rest of the money. Some 40 children usually come. "Most haven't really been in a bookstore before," Kepler's Karen Pennington says. "About 15 staff people work with them in the hour and a half they're here. It doesn't pull in a lot of money and costs us in terms of salaries, but it's a perfect example of a readership that normally would not be in the store."
Kepler's many "give-back" programs, which encourage people to shop in the store, include ones whereby local schools, libraries and nonprofit organizations receive gift certificates crediting purchases made at Kepler's by members or students or others affiliated with those groups. The totals raised for one such program called It's for the Kids amounted to nearly $10,000, which benefits a dozen local libraries; 10% of the total of those sales is donated to the libraries.
With the San Jose Mercury News, Kepler's stages a "gift of reading" program in late November and early December, geared to providing young children with books. The newspaper runs free ads; the store is the place where people can buy new children's books and place them in donation boxes. Many of the titles chosen are entry-level Spanish-language titles. Pennington estimates that thousands of books are donated this way. The program "spurs sales in certain areas and allows us to build some really good sections," she adds.
Kepler's also holds more than 125 author events a year, which draw some people who don't often go to the store but "remember it during the holidays." Kepler's also holds a "local authors day," which usually features a panel of four new writers (who are often self-published); reading groups; an open-mic Sunday night poets event; and a writing workshop, which the store considers an investment in developing future authors in the area.
Getting the Word Out
For Elaine Petrocelli, working with and making connections with the community in ways to draw in new readers is second nature. The owner of Book Passage, in Corte Madera, Calif., "speaks to every community group I can," she says, making about 75 "book talks" a year. They range from literary clubs to the Rotary. "I often speak to guys who haven't been thinking about books much," she says. For the Rotary, "about the second week of December, I talk about Christmas presents, discussing 30 books that are really great for Christmas. They buy them all."
She speaks frequently on radio and elsewhere about "why you should be giving books for Christmas," she continues. "You really have to be out there and get people to think about books and think about your store."
Like Kepler's, Book Passage pays great attention to potential future readers. One store program encourages children from Marin City, "one of the poorest areas in the county," to come to Book Passage for author events; the kids get free books, either through the help of grants or the generosity of Book Passage. The store also holds a regular Sunday event at which Christopher Smith plays guitar and reads aloud. "It's so important for kids to develop a love of reading and appreciation of the importance of reading early on," Petrocelli says. "We have to hook them young."
Also like Kepler's, the store is reaching out to the Spanish-language community. Book Passage hosts several book groups in Spanish, and some events are conducted in Spanish. "We are expanding that section all the time," Petrocelli notes, "and people like coming into the bookstore and finding the selection."
Another outreach program began informally and has grown to include hundreds of people. It's called Aunt Lydia's Book Club and is designed for people who live far from Book Passage. Customers often enroll friends or relatives in the book club by filling out forms about the person's interest. Book Passage then sends an appropriate title once a month. "Some are for kids who live far away, a nun in a convent, a businessman in Milan, a lady in a nursing home who gets books on tape," explains Petrocelli.
Petrocelli also has ties to at least one senior-citizen facility (the kind of spot she calls "country club prisons"), encouraging the shuttle buses that usually take seniors to the mall and movie theaters to stop at Book Passage as well. "We have coffees for them," Petrocelli says. "We invite them to events. Some are longtime customers. Others are new. They are very loyal about buying for themselves and for gifts. Some people have given up on reading because they don't know about large-print books."
An unusual idea that may draw new readers and encourage established readers could be adapted from an idea that a Pennsylvania book lover intends to implement this coming spring, with the support of the continuing education department at a local community college. Larry Portzline, who works for the state government and teaches writing part-time at the Harrisburg Area Community College, will hire a bus and take 30 to 40 people from the Harrisburg, Pa., area to New York City (about 150 miles away), where the group will spend much of a day visiting bookstores in and around Greenwich Village.
On the trip to New York, he says, the group will discuss bookstores and the state of the bookselling business. Attendees will then go to four or five stores each—out of a probable 18 within a square mile. (Among the top five: Housing Works, Shakespeare & Co., Skyline, Three Lives & Co. and the Strand.) Afterward, the group will eat at a restaurant across the Hudson overlooking the city and talk about the books they have bought and stores they have seen. On the way back to Harrisburg, the group will watch the movie You've Got Mail.
"It seems like a no-brainer," Portzline says. "It's along the same lines as busloads of shoppers headed to outlet malls, although I like to think this is a little nobler than that and perhaps a little more enriching."
Books and Community
Much like Book Passage's Petrocelli, Scott Meyer, owner of Merritt Bookstore, which has two stores, in Millbrook and Red Hook, N.Y., is deeply involved with the community. Perhaps the biggest program is the Rotary Interact Club for which Meyer acts as an adviser. Some 100 high school students do about 40 community service projects a year. "Every day we have high school students in the store working on projects," Meyer says.
A recent typical project involved putting together packages of needed items as requested by the Salvation Army for some 220 families in the general area. While the packages may contain toothpaste or gloves or toys, they also include many children's books, some of which are either damaged or can't be returned, so they're donated by the store.
For another project, students worked with residents at a local retirement community to produce living histories of World War II. The students took oral histories from the seniors, then wrote them up and published them as a book that is sold in the store. Although the book project makes no money, it's so important for "bringing students and seniors together," Meyer says.
The store hosts many book clubs; besides the usual poetry or Penguin Classics clubs, they include the local historical society's book club. "They pick out books on quilts, midwifery, slavery," Meyer says. "They add new things." Among others, a Girl Scouts troop and women's financial group meet at the store. The store also works with local libraries: besides being a resource for them and helping with conferences and readings at libraries, Meyer talks regularly with librarians about marketing and encourages them to be a part of displays in various non-book retailers in town. A display in a hardware store might include, for example, some antiques, rakes, a watering can and a few books from the library. The involvement with libraries and other retailers, Meyer says, helps people "become aware of you as a bookstore. It's so important that they know who we are, where we are and what we do."
For Dutchess Outreach, a community advocate program, the store wrapped nearly 300 books to go to another organization. Because of all the community work, "We often draw people into the store because they have to talk to us," Meyer says.