Seeing it as a way to appeal to customers while also acting in a more socially responsible way, both independent bookseller and the major chains are increasing their investments in green projects. Recycling, changing lightbulbs to more energy-efficient models, and reusing packaging materials are some of the initiatives being employed by both the chains and many independents. A growing number of indies have begun shelving together books that address environmental and sustainability issues. For about a year, most Borders stores have had a “Green Living” endcap promoting green titles; the chain plans to phase in journals and sketchbooks made from 100% post-consumer fiber.

Indie Breathe Books in Baltimore is truly embracing the green concept: the store is wind-powered. For the past six months, Baltimore Gas & Electric has delivered electricity from wind facilities in Iowa and Texas to Breathe Books and five other nearby businesses. While owner Susan Weis has seen a 10% increase in her utility bills since the switch to wind power, there's also been a concurrent increase in business that's offset the higher energy costs. “Being green will bring you more green,” Weis says, “There's an appreciation for doing the right thing for your community. People want to support it.”

Weis had also hoped to become the first “bagless bookstore in America” by encouraging her customers to use either the recycled tote bags she sells for $4.95 or not take a bag at all for their purchases. However, Lafayette Bookstore in Lafayette, Calif., has earned that distinction: it has completely stopped providing plastic or paper bags, offering, instead, $1 cloth totes.

Andy Natell, the incoming president of the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, operates two bookstores, Arches Book Co. and Back of Beyond Books, which are located across the street from one another in Moab, Utah, a town of 5,000 residents. While Arches is a full-service, general-interest bookstore, Back of Beyond's entire stock of 5,000 titles is devoted to environmental and sustainability issues.

“Back of Beyond is known for its green literature, leftist-leanings and Americana,” Natell says of the 1,800-square-foot store he's owned since 2004. The store was founded in 1990 by a Wyoming physician, Bruce Hayes, in homage to his late friend Edward Abbey, the radical environmentalist and author of the eco-novel The Monkey Wrench Gang and the nonfiction Desert Solitaire.

According to Natell, while “some locals won't step foot inside” Back of Beyond, sales there are higher than at Arches, though the two stores are comparable in terms of retail space and size of inventory. There's a 5% overlap in the two stores' stock. “People who come here can't find these materials anywhere else,” Natell explains, estimating that most Back of Beyond customers are visitors to the area. “People who come in know what they want. They don't hesitate to buy six to eight books at a time.”

Like Weis and Natell, Jessica Roe wants be true to the mission of Greenleaf Books, the bookstore she's plans to opening in July in Minneapolis. Roe, an attorney and the daughter of the late Janet Johnson, a Minnesota state senator remembered as a champion of environmental causes, describes the creation of Greenleaf as the culmination of a “mid-life crisis.”

“I wanted to do something environmentally minded that I could include my kids in,” explains the mother of three young children. “I want my kids to learn to participate the same way I did—from my mother.” While Greenleaf primarily will be a used bookstore, Roe will carry a selection of new books—but only books that are published in an environmentally sound way.

“I want to help people learn that by reading used books or new books created in an environmentally friendly manner, they can reduce their carbon footprint,” Roe says. Though Roe easily is accumulating 25,000 used books to sell at Greenleaf, she's finding it difficult, if not almost impossible, to order new books that fit her criteria. “I thought I'd hear more about big publishers using green initiatives to publish books at the [ABA] Winter Institute,” she says, “but it hasn't hit them yet.”

Roe also plans to add 2,000 remaindered books to the mix at Greenleaf. “It's another way to reuse and recycle books, because what happens to remaindered books otherwise?” she notes.

Roe's commitment to recycling and reusing materials extends to the 1,800-square-foot retail space itself, which is being outfitted with ceiling fans, low-flow toilets and energy-efficient lighting. Greenleaf will be housed in a former pet hospital that has been gutted to make way for the new bookstore. Ceiling tiles, door jambs, pipes and other salvageable materials are being recycled and reused in creating the new bookstore. Roe has also purchased shelves, books and “everything else I could use in a bookstore” from a local used bookseller, Lien's Books, as its owner is downsizing his collection.

“I'm using a lot of resources,” Roe admits, “but I believe it's okay if you are using them in the right way—to promote change.”

Devoting more resources to creating a more eco-friendly business is part of the strategic plan at Borders for 2008, says Steve Davis, senior v-p of operations. Davis says a “coming together” of factors makes this a good time to explore ways to develop more sustainable business processes. He adds that using energy more efficiently will be good for the retailer's bottom line; that customers expect companies to become more environmentally conscious; and that Borders's employees are very interested in making it a more environmentally sensitive company.

Employees' interest in the environment was made clear last year with the formation of the Environmental Action Committee. Rachel Murphy, an online merchant and chair of the committee, says the employee group has been benchmarking tasks and creating employee awareness campaigns. Murphy says those efforts are starting to pay off—rather than just the committee sending out e-mails about how employees can be more environmentally friendly, suggestions come from all departments about ways Borders can do better by the environment. “The tide has turned,” she says.

Davis says that at the top of the list from a corporate standpoint is investment in new equipment that will lower Borders's energy usage. The company is also measuring its carbon footprint. Davis says Borders will use the information to help it direct its environmental policy. “We want to make investments in the places where we can get something accomplished,” Davis says.

MPIBA Strives for Zero-Waste Gathering
It's not just individual booksellers who are befriending the environment. The Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association [MPIBA] is organizing its March 26—28 spring meeting at the Rocky Mountain Park Holiday Inn in Estes Park, Colo., around a green theme, beginning with its keynote speaker, David Wann, the author of Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle (St. Martin's Griffin, Jan.).

Lisa Knudsen, MPIBA's executive director, is hoping to inject discussions of low-carbon diets and eco-teams into the meeting's programming. “It's a perfect fit for booksellers to be community catalysts,” Knudsen says of the twin initiatives, in which groups of people make pacts with one another as eco-teams to go on low-carbon diets, i.e. reduce their carbon emissions.

The meeting's theme of sustainability extends even to its logistics. Knudsen is asking sales reps to minimize waste by bringing fewer books, catalogues and handouts, although the hotel, named one of 23 “green” hotels by Colorado Dept. of Health and Environment, maintains a recycling program.

Meals will consist of organic, locally sourced foods, as well as organic coffee and tea from local retailers. While Knudsen admits that these menus will cost MPIBA more, she thinks it's worth the extra expense.

“I'm doing everything I can think of to make green meetings and trade shows,” Knudsen says, promising that MPIBA's fall show, to be held in Colorado Springs this year, also will strive for sustainability and zero waste.