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.

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.

For years, the discounters have expanded their footprints and gained market share. Now, there’s a plethora of cheap quality everything in national chain stores and online outlets. Where do you find quality these days? What about unique and interesting?

I recently sought out to replace our old and fraying bedspread and it proved more costly and time-consuming than I ever imagined. Since we live in a warm climate and I’m of a certain age, I did not want polyester or any kind of fabric blend that included synthetics. A white cotton coverlet … shouldn’t be that difficult to find. After two tries online, with disappointment in the quality and return shipping in both instances, I waited until I was in a city with a department store where I could feel the fabric.

While online shipping can be a convenience, you have to know what you want and how to drill down to find it. Even then, you’ve got to trust your source.

Indies can win trust and loyalty by providing quality, uniqueness, and service.

Indies can win trust and loyalty by providing quality, uniqueness, and service.

We are now learning that convenience and cheap isn’t always what we want or need. I want business I can trust to be smart in their selections so I don’t have to plough through hundreds of items online.

I’m not alone.

This trust is why customers of indie bookstores are loyal. Venture into the bookstore and you know you can discover something good to read. Find a perfect gift when you’re on the run. Grab a fun card (that isn’t at the grocery store). And trust your bookseller will offer to help you need some help deciding. Add a smile and a “thank you for your business” and the whole experience is way more gratifying.

As Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has taught us, quality is better than quantity.

Indie businesses should play up the “smart” part of what they offer because it is a tangible competitive advantage when the hidden costs to “cheap” … our time, satisfaction, jobs, and our environment … are now becoming clear.

I hate it when I leave things in hotel rooms. On this last trip, I left my phone charger in the room. So I headed to the office supply store, grabbed an inexpensive replacement and went to the check-out counter.

A lovely young lady smiled, took my item, and then said, “Ah, the old fashioned kind. I haven’t seen one of these in a while.”

I’m not sensitive about my age, but this comment stung. But why? She wasn’t rude in her tone of voice and her comment was honest … the plug was not the duo USB/electrical plug, it was a simple electrical plug. The “old” kind. The young woman was simply unaware that her comments could be received as, “You must be totally unaware that nobody uses these anymore. Are you clueless? Why are you wasting your money on this thing?”

Customer service training is ongoing. We all can benefit from reminders to avoid words that judge and use words that help.

Customer service training is ongoing. We all can benefit from reminders to avoid words that judge and use words that help.

Communication is complex and it may not take much for a customer to take things in a way that was unintended. That’s why I immediately thought why many bookstores train their staff not to comment on customer purchases. Instead, they’re trained to talk about other things, like asking if any of the items are gifts and need gift wrapping, asking if the customer found what they needed, sharing information about the store’s newsletter list or inviting the customer to the next event.

Now that we’re in the heat of the presidential campaigns in the U.S., this serves as advice to reinforce with all staff. It’s easy to avoid language that can appear judgmental by focusing on simply being friendly and helpful.