Whether I’m reading the news from the National Retail Federation or listening to the nightly business news, it seems so many retailers are struggling. Blame the internet, overhead, or too much space, but retail is challenged.

Yet the news coverage of indie bookselling is quite the opposite. Travel magazines and any publication that spotlights a community will often call out area bookstores right along with the cafes and diners that celebrate local foods.

As students of retail, it’s interesting to explore the similarities and differences … notice the trends and spot the opportunities.

Business investors like to assess “scale”, referring to economies of scale and extra profits that come with volume and shared overhead. Growth is a constant expectation as are efficiencies realized from new uses of technology.

Main Streets and independent businesses are the spiral up for our economy and quality of life.

Main Streets and independent businesses are the spiral up for our economy and quality of life.

Corporate strategies have their place. So do the ideals, practices, and values of independent businesses.

In an opinion piece entitled “The Myth of Main Street” published by The New York Times, Louis Hyman stated, ”Small stores are inefficient” and added that shop local campaigns and vibrant downtowns are elitist. The tagline to the article reads, “Don’t listen to President Trump. Going back to the good old days will cost us.” A month after reading this piece, I’m still saddened by the narrow view of “costs”.

For decades, the U.S. has received an endless flow of cheap goods from other parts of the world that have filled the Wal-marts and dollar stores across the country. The issues regarding worker abuse and the harm inflicted on the environment have been well reported, yet those costs don’t enter the equation since we’ve been on a spiral down in terms of services jobs and low wages, only increasing the demand for cheap goods.

Independent businesses and booksellers for sure are about the spiral up.

Serve your community, offer quality that is difficult to find in most corporate retail stores, answer the phone, be there to assist customers with recommendations, host programs and events that bring the community together, then

buy with increased accuracy because of first-hand market knowledge, utilize just-in-time inventory efficiencies, increase wages and share profits, keep Main Street alive and lively. Most importantly, contribute to the local economy.

Efforts that contribute to the spiral up happen every day on Main Street. There’s a tangible difference between cost and value.

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.

This week’s headlines in the book business is Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos book. Some cheer, others uphold the First Amendment. It’s messy.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

While our First Amendment protects free speech, publishers are faced with way more submissions than they could ever publish, so choices are always being made about what manuscripts make the cut. Often times, celebrity wins out because of the expected return on investment. In many cases, like this one, it’s simply about business.

When Simon & Schuster decided to offer a $250,000 advance, the executives likely did their due diligence to understand that Yiannopoloulos was edgy and would offend many. As the editor of Breitbart News, he’d been in the spotlight for some time. So was his bad behavior on social media. Obviously, Simon & Schuster did not realize that he would be so controversial that author Roxanne Gay, offended by Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Yiannopoloulos, would withdraw her forthcoming book and that some booksellers would boycott the publisher, cutting frontlist orders.

Decisions have consequences.

Do publishers have the right to publish whatever they want, even language of hate and hurt? In the United States, absolutely.

Do authors, booksellers, and readers have the right to protest? Absolutely.

The book industry is a business, but many of us who have dedicated our lives to the world of ideas and the written word have limits. When so many worthy manuscripts never pass the editors desks, it’s hard to understand why resources would be used to publish words that contribute to the dark side of humanity.

With the U.S. presidential election now decided, many of us have witnessed the protests across the country, learned that schools have called in counselors to help students cope with the results, and ourselves felt heightened emotions of sadness and concern for the future of our country.

As booksellers, we have always carried books that help us understand our world and heal our inner lives. We stock books to help parents help their children through grief and fear, books that foster self-confidence and prompt critical thinking.

Post-election bookstore message board.

Post-election bookstore message board.

Today, those books are needed more than ever. Hope for healing our lives, communities, country, and world will help us crawl out of bed and feel there is something we can do to contribute to a greater good.

A few weeks ago, I went to a TEDx event and ended the day feeling hope and optimism. All of these smart, loving people had done remarkable things in their seemingly ordinary lives and stood on stage to tell their stories. And, it was astounding that these remarkable human beings are my neighbors. It was a reminder that good people are doing good work every day.

TED talks and events remind us we are still learning … and we can keep learning from one another. At our TEDx event in Jacksonville, Florida, regular breaks were structured so we would interact with others and talk about the presentations.

Through dialogue, we connect and learn from one another. Everyone emerges enlightened. We learn to listen with openness, respond with civility and respect, and acknowledge one another in a human way when we are face to face. And, being together reminds us we are not alone on this journey.

The events we host in bookstores can respond to this need, providing more time and space for interaction, questions, and discussion.

We can be inspired to rethink our events to expand opportunities for two-way conversation. Book discussion groups, a featured local speaker with theme discussions, conversations after author talks, panel discussions … any program that opens the floor for interaction and exchange will allow us not only to feel engaged and connected, but will expand our world with other views and ideas.

We can bring people together to foster dialogue and connection with a higher purpose.

Our work has become even more clear during this presidential campaign. We need to step up our advocacy for the values and qualities that make us decent human beings who contribute to the greater good of the world.

Yesterday, as I was preparing dinner, I listened and watched Michelle Obama’s comments during a campaign presentation. She was right, this was not the time for a typical speech. These are not normal times.

Our work grows more important.

Our work grows more important.

Over the summer, I’ve been reading the publications from the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that is “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and seeking justice for the most vulnerable of our society.” For years they’ve produced a publication entitled Teaching Tolerance. The letters from teachers, Q&A responses about challenging situations emanating from this campaign season, and the heightened concerns teachers have for children has been chilling. Stories of playground behavior and language illustrate that children see, hear, and are affected.

On TV and radio, children have heard the spewing of hateful, disrespectful language and incitement of violence. And, we as adults have needed to discuss this because it is simply unbelievably surprising and sad.

We are better than this.

The effort needed to counter-balance these destructive words seems to grow in importance with each new day of the campaign.

Booksellers have a perfect audience with every story time and an opportunity with each little customer. I grew up with Captain Kangaroo and remember learning to say “please” and “thank you” and saw how a captain in a big mustache would be kind and civil with a little bunny rabbit. My storybooks taught me those same lessons.

The work to right this ship is immediate and probably ongoing. The media will need to continue to report the news, but we can work to be models and safe havens of civility and respect.

The political season “got to me” this past week. I’m politically engaged both locally and nationally, so for months I’ve been watching campaigns and debates, listening and reading commentary, and taking note of the nuances of this campaign season. But, as the negativity and dysfunction escalated, I hit an emotional wall.

A simple purchase of a bracelet by Laura Grierson was a reminder that we don't buy "stuff", we buy for the story.

A simple purchase of a bracelet by Laura Grierson was a reminder that we don’t buy “stuff”, we buy for the story.

While I often visit etsy.com to see what artisans are creating with books and with reading-related themes for our bookstore design work, this time I found myself using the key words, “prayer beads”, which is how I found Laura Grierson, a jewelry artist and metal smith based in Southern California.

Perhaps a bracelet with spiritual properties would bring peace to these moments. I remembered how my mother, who lived through much tragedy yet had her misgivings about organized religion, would say the rosary. I went surfing online and discovered Laura’s artwork, learned her story, and bought a bracelet.

Inside my tiny package that arrived just a few days before my birthday, I discovered a small hand-crafted note that read, “Dearest Donna, Please enjoy wearing your mama bracelets as much as I enjoyed making them for you! Many many blessings. LOVE + LIGHT, Laura”

As someone who has spent a career connected to retail, my work has been guided by why we buy. I’m convinced most of us no longer need more stuff.

We buy stories that connect us.

My purchase is more than another item in my material world. It’s a story, a connection, and shared humanity. For Laura’s customers, her story and personal touch shows in everything from her initial email expressing gratitude for your order to the lovely gift that is hand-packed with a hand-written note.

As I write this blog, I’m wearing Laura’s bracelets. They’ve connected me with another person I didn’t know before last week. And, the mindfulness reflected in the bracelets is reminder that goodness and kindness are present in this world.

Where we shop and what we buy matters … perhaps more than ever.

It’s been a busy week in a very good way. We’ve gotten inquiries from people in sizable cities that have only had second tier chain bookstores after the departure of Borders and Barnes & Noble. And, we heard this new store update from Jay Jackson, co-owner of Absolutely Fiction Books! with his wife Becky:

“People were waiting for us to open the doors, several people told me they almost cried when the first building deal fell through, they are emotionally invested in the Bookstore and make up our core fans. For them it’s not just a place to buy books it is a dream come true, Their dream.”

A Texas community celebrates the opening of Absolutely Fiction Books!

A Texas community celebrates the opening of Absolutely Fiction Books!

Perhaps it is true that we only recognize the value of what we had when it is lost. The residents of Lufkin, Texas once upon a time had a Waldenbooks. Becky worked there and was devastated when it closed. For years, she mourned the loss of the bookstore. Others did too.

When we can buy anything online, why do we miss any retail store?

Bookstores are special places. Yes, it’s the books and the staff and the smell of coffee and the comfy chairs. And, it’s so much more than that.

In the U.S., we have experienced a mind-bending political campaign that has brought about a series of shockingly new lows. Insults, bullying, the deliberate spread of misinformation, the lack of apologies and basic courtesy. The dark side of humanity has shown itself without shame in a country we thought stood for high ideals and personal responsibility, especially from those who wish to become our national leaders.

For months now, this dark side is the center of every media story. As a result, the campaign makes its way into casual conversations. People are upset for a lot of reasons.

That’s why when Becky Jackson puts fresh flowers out in the bookstore on Fridays and mentions it on social media, customers come in just for a look, a dose of something beautiful and refreshing. Then, there are books on the tables and shelves that are symbols of civility.

Bookstores ground us. They connect those who value facts, seek knowledge and common ground, want to engage in meaningful discussion and make the world a better place. It’s a place where people honor one another, even when they disagree, with courtesy and respect.

It’s no surprise customers of Absolutely Fiction Books! became emotional when they learned an indie bookstores would be opening in their community. Yes, it’s retail, yet a symbol of civility. May the flurry of new bookstore openings continue. We need bookstores for ourselves, our communities, our country, and our world.

When it comes to retail business, few companies find themselves involved in social and political issues like bookstores. The latest issue has been a response to North Carolina’s HB2 known as the NC “bathroom bill”. North Carolina has not protected workers who are LGBT and has language in HB2 that clarifies that the state does not intend to create a new class of protections based on sexual identity … and will not allow its cities and counties to create such a protected class.

We Are Not ThisAuthors have cancelled book tour stops in North Carolina and booksellers around the state have banned together to proclaim “we believe it is essential to be non-discriminatory, inclusive and tolerant, to promote freedom of speech and equality, and to guard against censorship and unfair treatment.”

Many of the beloved picture books we carry encourage respecting differences, actually embracing them. Our world becomes bigger and more compassionate when we don’t judge, bully, and isolate others.

The North Carolina booksellers are standing strong in their statement to their elected officials. They have a lot to lose in terms of their financial sustainability and ability to continue to provide safe spaces where people can gather and discuss issues, grow into their higher selves, and contribute to the evolution of humanity.

Bookstores are symbols of civility, education, lifelong learning, connection, and conversation. We celebrate the freedom to read, diversity and inclusivity.

Today, we in the book industry are shocked and saddened to see our colleagues in North Carolina battling for human rights in 2016 … in the United States of America. We can learn from the civil rights movement and all of those children’s books too. We stand with the North Carolina booksellers and believe we are better than this.

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.

The dream of owning a bookstore can be so strong and most people we encounter have spent years following different career paths and one day acknowledge that the bookstore dream just won’t go away.

In our years of working with people in career transitions into bookselling, we see a variety of wonderful skills and talents people have acquired. Stephanie was an attorney. Jeff was a journalist. Melissa was a CFO. James taught college literature. Rachel was a library director. Susan was an oncology nurse.

So how do you decide to make the career leap of your dreams?

Nina George's lovable main character, the owner of a book barge, refers to his bookshop as a "literary apothecary."

Nina George’s lovable main character, the owner of a book barge, refers to his bookshop as a “literary apothecary.”

I read from #Nina George’s new book, #The Little Paris Bookshop, during our most recent workshop because the gist of what makes a successful bookstore was perfectly articulated.

Jean Perdu owns a floating bookstore, a barge that travels the waterways of France. We travel along with him, encountering the various customers and learn their stories, needs, dreams, and woes. After a grandmother, mother, and girl leave the barge with their purchase and went on their way, “Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people.”

Smart people can learn retail management. You can’t really learn to be kind and generous.

Take inventory of your skills and look inward to identify the telling aspects of your character. If you love multi-tasking and enjoy a varied day with a mixture of conversations with people and completion of tasks, bookselling can be the right career move for you.

Bring your love for people and your interest in matching their needs and wants. But don’t minimize the importance of learning the business skills. Both are necessary.