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Books and bookstores can help set the foundation of positive change.

As the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds in response to conversations that were revisited after the tragic shootings at the AME Church in Charleston, the book world eager awaits  the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

Bookstores and libraries across the United States are sponsoring read-a-thons of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, a beloved story of honor and injustice in the deep South … and the heroism of one man in the face of blind and violent hatred.

Let our reflection and conversation about hate, racism, and progress continue.

When people who have worked for decades in other industries think about opening a bookstore, it can be difficult to explain just how important a bookstore can be by stocking and recommending books, choosing books for displays and writing shelf-talkers to help readers understand the value of a book, and sponsoring events to stimulate dialogue and encourage people to think and interact in ways that go beyond their daily lives. Bookstores, like Left Bank Books after the riots in Ferguson, can offer a safe place to question, learn, and heal.

It’s been said that our positions have become polarized in part because we don’t connect with people very different from us. Suburban sprawl brings together people of the same economic standing. Children grow up going to schools that are homogenous and socialize with children who look and begin to value the same things.

Books get us outside our own limited worlds, regardless of where we live, work, worship and play. Bookstores help us connect in real-time, face-to-face. What a foundation where we grow as individuals and affect positive change in society.

When terrible things happen, people seek answers and search for what can bring them comfort. In our country’s recent history, we’ve felt the shock of 9/11, the horror of Hurricane Katrina, and now, the discomfort and discontent of many social problems that have surfaced in Ferguson, Missouri. After now a series of killings of black people by police officers, our President and the people of  have acknowledged we have work to do. This work involves our collective attention.

When a crisis strikes, we search for understanding. Some look for comfort. While some people head to a church or a park, people also head to their neighborhood bookstore. While not many bookstore owners imagine the bookstore as a sanctuary when they decide to get into the business, when a crisis hits, it becomes clear that a bookstore is also a special kind of healing place.

It may be the peaceful quiet of browsing books, a symbol of knowledge and wisdom, that is the draw. Someone can leave the store with an escape novel, but the trip into the store helped in some way.

Others want interaction and dialogue. Left Bank Books, a St. Louis indie bookstore, not only stayed open after the Ferguson jury announced its verdict, but has scheduled a series of book discussions for a new group entitled #FergusonReads. Their website reads:

“The events in Ferguson have been upsetting for nearly everyone in our community. This reading group is an attempt to add some civility and context to the mix by exploring race, not only in St. Louis, but America as a whole.”

Bookstores can help the healing and spark conversation that improves our world

Bookstores can help the healing and spark conversation that improves our world

I’ve sent this link to my neighborhood book group. February is Black History Month and we’ve yet to select our books for 2015. I hope members of my book group will share the link with others too, exponentially expanding its reach.

One of the greatest competitive advantages of an indie bookstore is being part of the community. Helping the country face and work through its issues …. to help it reach its potential … is how we make a difference in our communities and beyond.

The idea for the Bookstore Make-Over Contest as a way to celebrate our 20th year in business stemmed from one core belief: the future of retail bookselling is about creating a remarkable in-store experience, something authentic and palpable that you can’t get with a click.

The railing opened the entrance and the stairway to the lower level.

Last week we applied the finishing touches at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, MO, the amazing indie bookstore with a fun and funky personality and a fabulous reputation for staging events. Early in the week, Dennis Jakovac with St. Louis Stair & Wood Works was in to install a beautiful new wrought-iron railing. Rather than have customers feel crowded the moment they entered the store, we chose to add a little breathing room by opening up the entrance to the staircase … and encourage customers to come in, take a deep breath, linger, and be prepared for delicious book discoveries.

The front of any store is key real estate – especially to the right of the entrance – so we rearranged the bestsellers and new releases for fiction and non-fiction. Fixtures were moved, painted “junktique” tables were added, and we filled the focal point tables with books “of the moment.”

The Children's Department now has a space of its own.

The children’s section had been stuffed into a corner along a back wall beyond hardcover fiction, but it was not a place you’d want to linger. This entire department was moved to the back of the store where the far wall was painted a beautiful blue and a wrought-iron chandelier was added to catch the eye and help identify this special area.

Adjacent to the children’s department, we created a section called “Comforts of Home.” Cookbooks, a top selling category with high inventory turns, was expanded to two cases and two feature tables. Gardening, interiors, crafts, and etiquette are also grouped in this area.

At least four oversized island cases, one bulky table, a number of cardboard dumps, and a few wire spinners were removed from the sales floor. Their presence was unnecessary given stock levels and they impeded the flow of traffic through the store. Because of their height and heft, the extra fixtures created visual barriers as well – they were simply in the way, contributed to the clutter, and needed to go.

Magazines surround the Cash Wrap at Left Bank Books

Magazines that relate to news and current issues face the Non-Fiction new releases.

Magazines sales at the store had been on the decline, just as they are nationally. So we clustered art and design magazines on one side of the cash wrap facing those sections and relocated the weekly magazines that report on world affairs to the cash wrap side that faces the front of the store and new non-fiction. That way, they’ll get noticed by the customers who shop those topics.

Gifts and non-book items (terms we much prefer than “sidelines”) had been clustered on tables in the far corner of the store and completely lost. The solution was to cross-merchandise those items throughout the store where they would make for delightful discoveries.

Left Bank Books front of store fiction display

Fiction, the bestselling section in the store, gets a focal point display filled with important new releases.

Most gratifying about the project were the customer comments we heard while wrapping up the make-over. “I’ve been coming here since the 1970s,” one customer noted. “The changes are remarkable and give the store a lively feel.” A family quickly made their way to the new children’s department where the kids grabbed some books and sat on the bench in front of the display window. The mother commented, “Wow, look at the new space for kids’ books!”

After all of the pieces were in place, do-owner Kris Kleindienst wrote, “With Paz’s expertise outside perspective we were able to finally achieve a beautifully thought-out, relevant, unique and gorgeous new feel to our store without sacrificing our identity.”

Left Bank Books Focal Point "Junktique" Table

Repurposing tables and stacking them gave us more focal point display space. Here's a spotlight on poetry.

It’s remarkable what a new vision, some paint, rearranging fixtures, regrouping sections, adding a few unique tables in key spaces, and some cleaning and clearing can do! You’ll find more photos on our Facebook page … and in the autumn issue of our free e-newsletter, indie bookstore entrepreneur.

There has never been a time when offering an enriching, rewarding sense of place has been more important. Let’s keep giving our customers reasons to say, “Let’s go to the bookstore!”

Any retailer with more than one level to their space is constantly challenged to find ways to get customers beyond the main floor. That was certainly the case at Left Bank Books. With a short wall bordering the staircase to the lower level, columns at the top of the stairs, and prominent signage, many customers still didn’t even know there was more to discover downstairs.

Railing at Left Bank Books

Surprise! A railing from years past remerges at Left Bank Books.

Since there was more than 1,000 square feet of merchandise downstairs, one of our priorities was to make the staircase more visible. So we proposed tearing down one side of the short wall with bookcases, and replacing it with a beautiful new wrought iron railing that reflected an important element from the building’s exterior as well as the charm of old St. Louis.

Last night, after the store had closed, demolition of the wall commenced. What a surprise to see what was uncovered underneath the drywall … a wrought iron railing! Though it may have been original to the building, its design and construction was unsafe and would not meet current code requirements. So we’ve arranged for a local business, St. Louis Stair & Wood Works, to install a new wrought iron railing, not only to restore authenticity to the space, but also to make the stairs leading to the lower level a focal point upon entering the store.

Now we’re off to do the section moves and merchandising this week and will post new photos next week to show how some design elements and a splash of color can make all the difference in how customers experience the space – and how much they buy.

The moral of the story is, “Be prepared to be surprised.”