With Small Business Saturday the perfect opportunity to remind people of your start-up and the importance of small business to the local economy, why not do a pop-up shop?

Start-ups do pop-ups for a variety of reasons, mostly for visibility and the opportunity to learn from your customers while you’re still making critical decisions about your selection, programming, etc.

A pop-up shop allows you to learn from customers and begin learning store operations.

A pop-up shop allows you to learn from customers and begin learning store operations.

We learned the importance of being mindful the “intense” opportunity. In a limited amount of time you will arrange tables, merchandise your selection, set-up cash register operations, handsell books, ring up sales and gather customer information.

Then, when it’s all done, you’ll box up what’s left, haul everything that’s left back home, close out your register, look at what sold, and let all those customer conversations sink in.

It’s trial by fire.

At our pop-up on Saturday, the good news was people showed up! Our location is a destination, people aren’t just going to stumble upon it. Marketing was key so we sent out an email promotion, posted it on social media, and put signs up on the road beside our tiny Amelia Park Town Center.

Friends and neighbors came; they wanted to buy. Although the internet connection worked via our cell phone to the laptop so we were able to accept credit cards, the receipt printer decided to take the day off.

So, here’s what we learned:

  • Your troubleshooting and stress management skills you’ve built throughout your career will help you push through anything that comes your way. (We electronically ordered from both wholesalers with one failed transmission that led to duplicate shipments. Two books arrived damaged.)
  • Present a bit of everything you think you’ll carry in your store, then see what sells. The wholesalers offer non-book merchandise, so try out some things you think might sell.
  • Talk with people about what they like to read and tell them you’ll carry books those kinds of books.
  • Books change lives and people want to tell you their stories. Listening is such an easy way to build a relationship.
  • Say a few words about why the book the customer has picked up is noteworthy or special; show them beautiful books; tell them about what you heard the author say in a radio interview. People buy stories and beautiful things.
  • People will be incredibly patient and kind. These are your neighbors and they want you to succeed.
  • Some people will want something you don’t happen to have that day. Write it down and go find it and order it for them. They will be wowed by your interest and  initiative. When you make it easy and go the extra mile for someone, you are gaining a fan.

Pop-up Bev Pat JeffFor me, the technical aspects of running a store on an off-site laptop, getting all of the electronic parts to perform and learning all of the operational aspects from creating a purchase order to receiving books, selling and running the close-out report provided a training ground.

Even with a pop-up, you have the opportunity to learn all of the things you’ll soon be doing on a daily basis.

From marketing to operations, it’s all good learning.

If you’ve been following the business news on the many retail store and chain closings in this first part of the year, it may seem like good news for start-ups, but not so much.

Live music sponsored by the Centre Street merchants of historic Fernandina Beach, FL

Live music sponsored by the Centre Street merchants of historic Fernandina Beach, FL

The closings still appear to be about two main shifts: 1) away from big-box footprints, and 2) and to online shopping for products that can be considered commodities.

Are books commodities today? Well, to some people … those who know what they want, want it fast, want it at the best available price, and don’t value the in-store experience of shopping in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

Yet the competitive advantages for indie bookstores is generally about a thought-filled selection, staff recommendations, mindful displays, events, and that special feeling of being in a sanctuary for those who read, value local businesses and their contributions to culture and the local economy.

Indie bookstores tend to do best in Main Street destinations, not big-box developments and strip malls. These are quaint villages and clusters of cafes and shops that offer unique merchandise and a delightful browsing experience. These are places people love to linger, meet up with friends, and enjoy the moment. Their rents tend to be higher because they are tend to always in demand.

So, while the new vacancies in malls and strip centers are many, the over demand will likely not push rents lower in Main Street locations.

It’s still true that much of a retailer’s success is about location. While the big-box spiral down continues, this is an opportunity for Main Street merchants to regain local business by showing there are a lot of things you simply cannot get while shopping online.

You, too might be getting these calls … they begin with a woman who, for the first few seconds, seems real, even likable.

She has a little giggle and wants to know if you’re on the line. She sounds like she could be you neighbor or maybe your hairdresser calling to confirm your appointment. But, then you realize the voice was carefully crafted and is recorded.

Networks of computers make calls and capture customer information in today's world of digital marketing.

Networks of computers make calls and capture customer information in today’s world of digital marketing.

Mark and I both have been on the receiving end of these calls lately. Initially, they are amusing, until you realize you’ve been tricked. Telemarketing has never really had a great reputation, but with a large volume of calls, the response must be enough to keep them calling. What a way to do business.

Companies are investing big money in technology to form customer relationships. It seems our business executives are enthralled with technology and all that it can do. It feels a bit like the era when IT consultants told publishers the future was in electronic books. Money and attention from traditional channels were redirected towards technology. The initial response was promising, then the sexiness wore off. Many readers have already returned to the authentic, real, printed book.

I think of the executive who is skeptical about the focus on technology, but likely over-ruled by the technology believers at the board room table. When so much of our lives already involve gadgets and screens, will people grow to prefer immediate, perfect automated responses to human interaction? Or, will we search for some level of human interaction with others who are not family, co-workers, or neighbors?

Marketing now encompasses a growing number of strategies. In the end, it’s our decision about what is best for our type of business and what feels appropriate for our customers. An ad in the community theatre’s program, your personal letter to customers in your store’s newsletter, your contributions to social media, personal conversations with customers in the store … a valuable mix for today’s world.

Like most of life, balance is best. And in bookselling, still skewed towards authentic, not recorded, connections.

While the headline is positive, dig into the details and you’ll see the nuances. While many of us are reading (even reading more as we age), there are a significant number of people who are not reading books at all.

The most recent Gallup poll released January 6, 2017 … “Rumors of the Demise of Books Greatly Exaggerated” … indicates that older adults (aged 65 and older) are reading more than they did in 2002 with 85% now reading one or more books a year (up from 68%).

91% of young adults report reading at least one book in the past year.

Those in the middle years (aged 30 to 64) who reported they have not read a single book in 2016 is a whopping obama_read_poster_01111739%.

Why this matters is that this is the age group raising children, seeing them from birth through the college years.

If they don’t see us reading, they won’t see the value of reading.

From presidents to mayors, school principles to parents and grandparents, young people watch us. We are their role models.

The future of reading, depends on making sure our actions match our words.

Wendy Werris, a writer for Publishers Weekly magazine, wrote a “Soapbox” editorial that described her short bookselling experience working at Barnes & Noble. I closed the issue after reading her piece and let out a big sigh.

As technology has changed the way we work and live, we’ve seen the number of new books published exponentially increase. At one point a wholesaler mentioned we have more than 3 million books in print. Now, no one ventures to even utter a number, but I did hear that we’re at least at a clip of 2,000 new books per week. Yes, per week.

Indie booksellers are not only affected because the store size is finite, but there’s only so much time in the day to review publisher catalogs and industry news. How to keep up is an ongoing challenge.

Every book on this table display at Chicago's RoscoeBooks comes with a recommendation.

Every book on this table display at Chicago’s RoscoeBooks comes with a recommendation.

Yet investing time and energy in buying just to return is wasteful. It’s wasteful for the bookstore, for the publisher, for wholesalers, and for the book industry.

We want the best books for our community in the bookstore. Recommendations from sales reps is tremendously valuable; Above the Treeline helps; and spotlights from the American Booksellers Association (IndieNext) and regional booksellers associations help us focus our investment of time and inventory dollars.

In Wendy’s soapbox piece, you get an image of booksellers unpacking books from boxes, then gathering them up and boxing them back up for return. Every day, like the movie Groundhog Day, the task is the same.

Where’s the bookSELLING?

Our true north is with investing in the books we want to introduce to our community. Our work is to ensure when a book leaves the store, it’s not leaving through the back door on its way back to the publisher, but through the front door, in the hands of a customer who will enjoy a great read they have discovered at our bookstore. Selling means a focus is on aligning marketing, merchandising, and staff handselling.

When there are so many books and so little space and funds, we need to make sure our true north is reflected in the books that grace our shelves. Unlike corporate chains, we’re not in this business to buy and return books. When we care about great writing, a good story, and exceptional research, we will work to make sure those works are discovered. Sales, profits, and sustainability follow.

yelpIn a recent article reprinted in the UTNE Reader from Gastronomica, Dylan Gottlieb presented the demographics of the Yelp users: they are urban dwellers, disproportionately young, white, childless, wealthy, and highly educated. Most importantly, he reports that Yelp’s data suggests 72 percent have either college or graduate degrees … and they love authentic experiences.

Yelpers have a treasure trove of readers and potential indie bookstore customers.

Gottlieb wrote about Yelp posts mostly about dining experiences, but the demographics indicate that Yelp may be a perfect platform for marketing outreach for indie booksellers.

Not only did these Yelpers grow up reading Harry Potter books, they went on to devour young adult novels, and now, according to recent studies, are reading more than their parents and grandparents. Who would every imagine?

In our work helping bookstores with succession planning, we check all of their social media sites and recognize that there are few bookstores with any more than a few customer comments on Yelp.

In today’s world where peer opinions matter more than ever before, Yelp appears to be an underutilized platform to reach out to younger readers. Prompting a few young customers to post about books and your indie bookstore.

As we hear and see the horrific stories of oppression in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and the growing number of countries being dominated by ISIS, it’s not only the physical brutality that is disturbing, but the limitation of education and free speech that dampens hope for the future. China limits internet access. After World War II,   we hoped we’d seen the end of government suppression of ideas. Not so.

Today, in the U.S. in the year 2015, two recent polls conducted by the Newseum Institute and the Harris Poll report that the number of people who think there are books that should be banned completely has grown from 18 percent of those surveyed to 28 percent. The polls also indicated that one third of Americans do not know what the First Amendment is.

Here is the language:

First Amendment – Religion and Expression. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It would be interesting to compare the results of these polls to those who measure how many Americans know about the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms.

The American Library Association reported that there were at least 311 books either challenged or removed in schools and libraries in 2014. Some of those books include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and others.

The list of challenged books gives us real reason to be concerned about the efforts to control the free flow of ideas.

The list of challenged books gives us real reason to be concerned about the efforts to control the free flow of ideas.

Every day, booksellers in the U.S. stand for our freedom to read. Banning books is a dangerous act that opens up a very slippery slope.

We’ll be celebrating Banned Books Week from September 27 through October 3. Read the list of frequently challenged books and the reasons why they have been challenged. Learn about the American Booksellers for Free Expression.

If we want to remain a free and open society, let the people decide for themselves what ideas and stories are worthy. Allow parents to be the ones to screen what their children read. While some unsavory, even hateful ideas will make its way into print, the greatness of the American way of life that government not limit the free flow of ideas. It’s the foundation of who we are and this freedom is worth preserving.

Spread the word. Read a banned book.

Some bookstores are well worth the drive. We were having lunch with friends who were telling us about their summer travel plans when I discovered we have a habit … we can’t help but associate a city with one (or more) indie bookstores. Going to Chicago? Oh, you’ve got to visit The Book Stall at Chestnut Court and don’t forget RoscoeBooks and the new Read It & Eat. One of my book group members texted me from Jeff Kinney’s new bookstore, An Unlikely Story, and attached a photo of her husband and granddaughter.

Just what is it about these stores people rave about? The entries on Yelp are love letters. Locals are proud they have a great indie bookstore in their community. The stores are listed in travel guides.

Here’s my list of three things. There are no numbers since all of these things are important and the truly great stores are way above average on every one.

* Passion for wonderful books with strong impulses to tell others about a really great read. From product to people, this can’t help but shine through.
* A full and thought-filled selection. Show me something I’ve never seen. Surprise me. Help me find something for someone I love. Make me smile.
* Offer a warm and friendly atmosphere. From people to place, the bookstore feels good: welcoming, comfortable, peaceful, engaging.

When we’re asked to do a business valuation for an existing bookstore or potential buyer, we look at Yelp, review their social media sites, and look through the store’s website. We see the passion, sense of place, and warmth in everything they do. A bookstore destination grows out of love.

No wonder people will drive out of their way just to visit. We need these places in our lives.

While in New York City for BookExpo America, we used a window of time before the convention began to slip into the flagship Macy’s store on 34th Street. There was a cover story on “Macy’s magic” in the Delta Sky magazine and we were ready for a retail field trip.

Macy's flagship store in New York City, an American institution.

Macy’s flagship store in New York City, an American institution.

The iconic store has been featured in films and is beloved for its Thanksgiving Day parade tradition. In touring the store, it’s clear that Macy’s has embraced many traditions while keeping the store fresh and exciting.

For booksellers and all retailers, Macy’s is a model. Here are a few of the lessons we took away:

Keep Building On Your Reputation
Macy’s has been the fabric of New York City and is known throughout the world. The windows are kept fresh and interesting. Displays are constantly changing. The staff is friendly, happy, and helpful. The old creaky escalators still take you floor to floor. Their signature event remains the anchor of their marketing plan.

Cater to Your Customer
We walked by the kids shoe department and saw the adjacent display of skate boards in really cool colors, stacked up high ready for loads of summer fun. Macy’s knows people stay for hours and hours, so they’ve added food and beverage service in strategic places. Macy’s understands many of their customers are tourists. Near one of the main restaurants is a display of Macy’s branded merchandise, from dog bowls to t-shirts and tote bags that connect their logo with artwork they commissioned.

Create a Delightful Escape
The store is a destination. It sparkles. It smells good. There are beautiful displays everywhere you look. The graphics make the store feel alive with real people. Signage helps you find things. It’s a happy place. You can Macy’s online, but if you can, you want to go into the store.

In today’s retail, most department stores have had a tough time competing with online shopping. Not Macy’s. They embrace the art and science of retail and have created an American institution.

During yesterday’s book and author breakfast at BookExpo America in New York City, we gathered, as usual, to learn about the new big books for fall and I was reminded how fortunate we are to sit and listen to writers … and the power of having more than one present during an event.

Authors Brandon Stanton, Kunal Nayyar, Diana Nyad, and Lee Smith speak during BookExpo America.

Authors Brandon Stanton, Kunal Nayyar, Diana Nyad, and Lee Smith speak during BookExpo America.

Kunal Nayyar (Big Bang Theory) was our master of ceremonies. He spoke about his upcoming book, Yes, My Accent Is Real, autobiographic essays, including his six day wedding in India with 1,000 people. He then introduced Lee Child, bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series who told us some about his years in England and past careers before telling us about his writing life. Diana Nyad then impersonated her Greek father when she was five, a conversation which lead to the reasons why she persisted to finally achieve success in swimming from Cuba to Key West and has told about it in her upcoming book, Find A Way. Last to speak was Brandon Stanton, photographer and author of the bestselling book Humans of New York which gave way to his newest, Humans of New York: Stories. I began blotting tears before Brandon even got through the first third of his presentation.

Prior to yesterday, I didn’t know Brandon Stanton’s work or his blog and must have just passed up the fact that he hit The New York Times #1 spot. Yet, Brandon’s own story touched me deeply. Imagine flunking out of college, getting axed from a job you imagined would make you wealthy, and instead finding yourself on the streets taking photos of and listening to stories of average people on the streets of New York City. I never would have been on the look-out for his new book, but now I’ve written the release date on my calendar: October 13, 2015.

You just never know when you’ll discover a great story, a remarkable writer, or one amazing human being.

While many noteworthy authors can engage an audience on their own, when bookstores want to help launch a less known author, pair them up with another author or create an event with a number of authors who all have their time to tell their story.

More and more, bookstores are hosting Local Author Nights where a number of writers come to make their presentations during a celebration of local talent. What could be three to five mediocre events becomes a well-attended event with a number of wonderful results. Not only do the authors bring their own followers, they meet one another and have time to meet readers beyond those in their own circle. For the bookstore, we sell more books … just because of the unexpected discoveries of those who come to sit and listen.

Bookstores are the ones that help readers make magical connections. It’s just another way bricks-and-mortar bookstores provide something that can’t be fully replicated online.