It was less than two years ago—in November 2002—that Mary Ellen Ahmad opened Aria Booksellers in Howell, Mich. Her downtown store's 3,000 square feet of books, gifts, and teaching and home-school supplies quickly became a success, most notably because of her practice of involving and including the other neighborhood merchants in her store's events. As a result, Ahmad said she made her five-year sales goal in one year. "I overspent, but the sales were right on." Before the store celebrated its first anniversary, it was invited by the New York Times to be a reporting store to its bestseller list.
All this from a store owner with no previous bookselling experience. What Ahmad does have, though, is a mantra: "I'm only going to be successful and healthy in my store if the other merchants are healthy!"
Her college degree was in fashion retail, but, she went to work in the family business, which was a manufacturer's representative for auto service parts. When her father sold that business, Ahmad went into a teaching career. Now, there are five teachers among her store's 14 booksellers. "Other teachers come in and say 'I'd love to work here.' " Ahmad told PW. "And kids see their teachers here. It's a real family atmosphere; we love to laugh, and we try to get the customers to do that too."
Ahmad says many of the creative ideas come from her staff. "I'm not piggish about it—I open it up to them," she said. The idea for one of the store's two largest events came from her store manager, a former art teacher. "She loves Halloween; I hated it. But she was enthusiastic. So we got a writer, who gathered information on our local history and created 'The Legend of Sleepy Howell.' " What could have been a typical single Halloween celebration became a monthlong series of events celebrating the town. One of the events was an attempt to break the world record of over 28,000 carved and lit pumpkins in one place. While the town wasn't able to beat that record, the 600 pumpkins that were assembled attracted 3,000 trick or treaters to the downtown area and an interview request from the BBC World News Service as well.
The bookstore's theme relates to the local opera house, one of the few 18th- century opera houses left in the country. When the town decided to restore it, Ahmad, already active in the community as a Spanish teacher and fund-raiser for her school, joined the board. As a board member, she met bankers, executives, elected representatives and other important community figures. To save commuting time, she rented an apartment and office space. When the building in which she was renting went up for sale, she wanted to buy it. She asked the members of the local chamber of commerce what business they'd want to see there. (In honor of the opera house, which is a block away, the store has a theater theme, including theater lighting, a cash wrap with lights that imitate a stage, an elevated stage in the children's section and a theater ticket booth.)
Research Pays Off
Ahmad spent almost two years researching the bookstore business, visiting bookstores in her county and joining the ABA and the Great Lakes Booksellers Association. She filled a binder with "anything I read about a bookstore doing something cool."
She feels the most valuable thing she did was attending Paz & Associates' weeklong bookselling school. "They're almost like my parents: if I have a problem or if I need a pat on the back I can call them," she said. "They taught that in your first year, it's important to get your name out there. So, I put a pot of $10,000 into my first-year marketing budget." She signed up for an eight-page bookstore newsletter put together by Paz & Associates that would be distributed to Aria's customers. Paz does the mass printing and helps bookstores with co-op. "It costs about $1,000 every couple of months; and it recommends books, advertises events and mentions authors," said Ahmad. The preprinted newsletter offers store owners two pages to customize with their own news items. "We stuff it in bags, plus we have an online version and send it via e-mail."
The rest of her budgeted money was used for radio advertising and in-store events, which have featured local authors such as Mitch Albom and picture book author Denise Brennan-Nelson. Regular events include storytimes and crafts for preschoolers; adult and junior book club meetings; an American Girls club with more than 250 members; and a community fitness group, the Healthy Howell Club.
The Talk of the Town
Events have helped make Aria a community favorite. Ahmad said she tries to think outside the box when planning them. "We don't just have an author signing: we offer coffee and tea and treats from the local merchants." Aria is credited with hosting two of the largest community events in recent county history: the "Legend of Sleepy Howell" pumpkin event and the launch celebration for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
During the planning of the Harry Potter celebration last summer, she talked to her fellow merchants and invited them to participate. "I told them that just because it's a book event, it doesn't meant that it's only about me—it's about all of us!" Thirty-five merchants—mostly retail and restaurants, along with the public library and chamber of commerce—signed on, and Ahmad collected $10 per merchant. "That paid for a banner that each one got to put outside their door to be a place in Harry Potter-ville," she explained. "Each merchant took on an identity and did what they wanted. For instance, our diner served all their same food, but it was just called something different that night. They renamed their sliders 'Slytherin Sliders.' " The result, she said, was that the whole town was in a gridlock, with people five deep.
"I thought I'd created a riot and there'd be looting. But the police came to me and said 'This is the best crowd we've ever seen,' " said Ahmad. The inclusiveness and community spirit almost eclipsed the excitement of the book. The event's one drawback was Ahmad's inability to get as many copies as she wanted to be on hand. "I could only get 300 books," she said. "Scholastic said, 'You're new, and 150 is all you need,' and Ingram gave me 150 because that was all I could afford. But people weren't that mad—they came for the party." For this year's Harry Potter Downtown Party (which took place on June 11), Ahmad noted that the number of merchants who signed on to participate was double the previous event.
For her Get Caught Reading event, not only did the local superintendent of schools sit in the store window to read, "He made all his principals come, took their pictures and posted them in frames around the window," Ahmad said.
Even when very real obstacles—such as upcoming road construction in August—arise, Ahmad relies on creativity. "I know it will hurt my business, but I'm not going to let it be a negative," she said. "We had a meeting, and the staff decided, why not put up yellow caution tape and wear construction helmets? And if the customers can't come to us, we will deliver!"