Bookstore consultant and educator Donna Paz Kaufman is convinced that if independent bookstores expect to survive in a weak economy, with online retailers and chain stores competing for market share by slashing prices and practically giving away bestsellers, they'd better “push the envelope in terms of creativity” to build up their customer base.

“Business basics are a must,” she explains. “But that bookstore magic needs to be translated for customers in tangible and interactive ways. Too many bookstores don't do some of the most obvious things in a consistent way.” Paz Kaufman quickly reels off a few ideas that are relatively easy for booksellers to implement: create an inviting ambiance with floor lamps, table lamps, and comfortable seating; think beyond traditional categories in arranging merchandise; let categories be customer driven; pair books with related sidelines and toys. “It can be as simple as painting the walls an interesting color,” she says, citing the “stunning” purple walls of Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Ill. “Pump up the fun factor,” she insists. “Make the store one-of-a-kind, an escape from the outside world.”

In-store browsing is an advantage that bricks-and-mortar bookstores will always have over their high-tech competitors, as well as over chain outlets, Paz Kaufman says. “Bookstores need to offer a wonderful sensory experience, an interesting selection that's easy to navigate, and surprises that will make [customers] laugh or simply enjoy.” Stellar examples of this, she says, are the menagerie at Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, an aviary at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn., and a demonstration kitchen in the Book Vault (Oskaloosa, Iowa).

Partnering with local artists and artisans is another way to drive traffic into the store and jump-start sales while supporting one's community, Paz Kaufman says. For instance, she suggests that instead of just hiring a carpenter or woodcarver to build store bookcases, showcase and sell his or her bookcases. “Take time to work on the business, not just in the business,” she explains. “The time you spend feeding your creative side is as valuable as working the floor.”

Paz Kaufman's understanding of all the tangible and intangible elements that go into creating a bookstore with a chance of thriving in today's volatile market comes from years of experience. For more than a decade, Paz Kaufman and her business partner and husband, Mark Kaufman, have helped more than 700 clients learn how to transform “that bookstore magic” into a viable business. Running what Paz Kaufman describes as “a combination of career coaching and book industry training,” she and Kaufman lead five-day workshops for aspiring booksellers near their home on Amelia Island, Fla., and in 1999 took over from the ABA running the annual Prospective Booksellers School during BookExpo America.

According to Paz Kaufman, only four out of every 10 people who open bookstores go through any formal industry training beforehand. “Our constant challenge is to help people realize that it is much more challenging than it may initially appear. Bookselling is a nickel-and-dime business with very little room for error,” she notes.

Paz Kaufman herself has intimate knowledge of how a single error can imperil a bookstore and what it takes to turn things around. In 1989, she joined Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville after a false fire alarm had triggered the sprinkler system and destroyed the store's entire inventory, which prompted most of the staff to quit. Together with a leadership team she formed among the remaining employees, Paz Kaufman developed a new plan for the store, which included changing how Davis-Kidd staff interacted, both with each other and with their customers.

After Davis-Kidd posted record sales and profits about a year later, Paz Kaufman moved on and in 1992, together with Kaufman, formed a consulting company, Paz & Associates, to work with independent booksellers wanting to improve the ways in which they do business. Today, that company, the Bookstore Training & Consulting Group of Paz & Associates, includes a bookstore architect, a CPA, and five graphic designers.

The key to surviving in a digital world, Paz Kaufman says, is to create an online personality that's as vibrant as the bricks-and-mortar store's ambiance: promote the store Web site inside the store and vice versa; update the store Web site often; use social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter to connect with customers; provide links to visiting authors' sites and to local community sites, including posting bookstore events on sites used by tourists to the area.

“The magical sense of place, combined with the fascination with technology, will keep bookstores relevant,” Paz Kaufman says.