First is was just the business news, now, the general media is covering the struggles of the retail sector. Retailers are struggling. Stories of corporate restructuring and store closings and the impact on employment figures have, for good reason, caused increasing alarm.

It’s interesting that we have one major shift happening today: online shopping has become so easy that people are open to shopping for all kinds of products, including groceries.

Unless there is some obvious benefit to shopping at a bricks-and-mortar store, shopping online can be seen as a way to save time. Need something? Place the order and expect it will be at your doorstep almost momentarily.

Technology makes shopping efficient and many appreciate not having to use time to perform the mundane duties of daily life.

The Boulder Bookstore is known as a place to come to listen, learn, and be transformed.

The Boulder Bookstore is known as a place to come to listen, learn, and be transformed.

And this is where bookstores are the outliers in this story of retail suffering. Most indie bookstores are doing quite well now that the economy has improved, many booksellers say they are even thriving. At first glance, it appears counter-intuitive or a suspicious attempt by the bookselling industry to show that everything is just fine.

Shopping for books is not like shopping for diapers. Browsing for books is not a routine, mundane “task” for people who love books and savor their time to read. It’s a reward, a treat, a welcome break from noise, screens, interruptions, and distractions.

We have needs and longings that transcend what we can get from a website. Some people will never shop online for groceries since that’s where they experience the pleasure of choosing peaches or selecting from new brands of Italian canned tomatoes. It’s also where they run into their neighbors.

People go to a bookstore for quiet time. They come to be with other people. They come for conversation and sometimes entertainment. Book people come so see what might tickle their curiosity or make them smile. We can sneak it elements of beauty and comfortable seating and you can almost hear the “ahhh…” in response. It feels good. Walk around and the books speak to you. Don’t know what to read next? No worries, just look around. And, we’ll also offer a friendly “hello”, which is also an invitation to let us know what you need.

Booksellers are outliers in this store of the suffering of general retail. The unfolding is nuanced. There is more than one story within the transformation of the retail sector.

We fully expect that more shopping will morph to online activities. And, we fully expect bookstores will continue to do well. So will coffee shops and little cafes. These places fulfill human needs … they help us balance life, refresh and renew, connect, and feel joy. That makes bookstores outliers in today’s retail environment.

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.

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.

Last week, thirty people representing twenty new independent bookstores gathered for Bookstore Boot Camp. Most were in the planning stages. Some were exploring whether bookselling would be the right next step in their careers. All of us were deep into the business of bookselling.

Author Jeff Kinney inspires the newest indie bookstore owners during Bookstore Boot Camp.

Author Jeff Kinney inspires the newest indie bookstore owners during Bookstore Boot Camp.

We took the Bookstore Boot Camp on the road this time, traveling to Massachusetts to take a field trip to An Unlikely Story, the bookstore opened in 2015 by Jeff Kinney, author of the fabulously popular Wimpy Kid series. Also, the retailer that won the Specialty Store Silver Design Award from the Association for Retail Environments.

We expected this would be a special Boot Camp, but you never can actually predict the magic of the moment.

After touring An Unlikely Story by Deb Sundin, the store’s General Manager, we were invited up to Jeff Kinney’s studio where he welcomed us to “Wimpy World”. All of us delighted in seeing the life-size graphics from the Wimpy Kid series and the colorful and creative space where Jeff writes, draws, and navigates the worlds of book publishing, film-making, playwriting, licensed products, and now, bookselling.

We had entered a place where children are honored and the biggest success is defined as the time when a child learns to read for the fun of it. Given the millions of Wimpy Kid books that have sold in dozens of languages around the world, Jeff has enriched many lives.

As we were winding down our visit and Jeff congratulated everyone and wished them well, he offered these heart-felt words: “there’s nothing more sacred than putting a book into a kid’s hands.”

Heads nodded, “Yes”.

Later in the week when we were wrapping up the workshop and discussing our next steps, our youngest colleague … a twenty-something who said she came because she wasn’t clear what to do with her career … said she’d found clarity: Bookselling.

Success can be defined in so many ways. In bookselling, success is often measured by finding your tribe and performing sacred acts.

Like many others who a part of a book group, my book group has become a vital part of my life. Having spent decades in the book business, it’s also been a fascinating portal into not only what others love to read (and why), but to see how they prefer to read.

Over the last decade, I’ve seen several of my book group friends switch to e-books. Each month, I bring my print volume.

The feel of a book creates a different kind of reading experience.

The feel of a book creates a different kind of reading experience.

This week, one of the e-book pioneers told me she’d recently read a printed book and is going back to print. “What is it that is drawing you back to print?,” I ask. Without specifics, my friend and neighbor explains that, “it’s a totally different reading experience … it’s more real and it’s simply a better experience than reading on a screen.”

Even though she has all of the Amazon perks from being a long-time Kindle user, she’s limiting her e-book reading to travel. Otherwise, she’s going back to print and buying those books at our local indie bookstore, who hosts my neighbor’s knitting group.

The IT professionals forecasted that e-books would be the dominant format by now. What clouded the judgment was the fascination with technology as innovations were radically changing our lives. Now, there’s been time and space to compare both experiences. And, people are choosing what feels best and most rewarding.

With a six percent growth in unit sales January through June of this year versus 2015, my neighbor is not alone. Reading is more than accessing type immediately.

Print books are a beautiful invitation to shut out the distractions that surround us and enjoy the weight of a good story or immerse ourselves in the topic we choose.

Not that readers who have been reading e-books will choose to return completely to print, but readers are acknowledging the reading experience is different … and better … with print.

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.

I think we’re at a tipping point in developing alternatives for affordable retail space …

Mark and I recently visited Nashville, our former home town, and loved traveling East Nashville, a community blossoming with home renovations and new cafes and retail stores.

While Nashville is known as a creative community … home of the Southern Festival of Books, Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books, plus all of those creative songwriters and composers who come from all over the world to contribute to the world of entertainment.

IMG_0131What we stumbled across was The Idea Hatchery, a cluster of small spaces near a major intersection. The flyer we picked up began with the headline:

“Start a Small Business in East Nashville”

Then continued, “The Idea Hatchery is”

* A community of small independent businesses hosted in 8 individual buildings.

  • An arrangement of buildings that have footprints of 168 sf, 256 sf, and 320 sf.
  • An opportunity to experiment and to share ideas with other small business owners.

The Idea Hatchery offers:

  • 1 year leases with no limits on renewal.
  • Reasonable rents with pro-rated utilities…”

Check out the gallery of photos and just imagine all of the cool things people discover when they visit.

New models are surfacing. They focus on collaboration, synergy, and creative energy. It’s an exciting era for indie businesses.

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.

Bookstores typically aren’t pioneers when it comes to technology. We use book industry databases to help us navigate the growing world of books and can’t easily survive without the bookstore computer systems to manage the business, but otherwise, bookstores thrive on low-tech approaches to business. In today’s world, we often need to remind ourselves that this isn’t necessarily wrong.

Just think about the number of times you’ve called a business to automatically receive the recorded message that claims “your call is important to us…” and then you hang on the line and wonder if you’ll reach a real person. Conversations about implementing the $15 minimum wage includes corporations trying to find ways to automate more functions … to minimize the effect on shareholders.

Real connection requires the human touch.

Meaningful connection requires the human touch.

This week I read on Care2, an article by Anne Pietrbngelo entitled “7 Ridiculously Easy Ways to Do Good” and #3 was “When it’s people vs. technology, choose people.”

This is good advice for individuals. It’s great advice for companies.

We can love technology, but know its appropriate uses, switching to the human side of life to really connect. Long term, true relationships are formed this way.

An algorithm can give you a book recommendation, but it takes a real bookseller to listen to you explain what doesn’t work in a “search” box, then hand you some suggestions. You can browse online, but there’s nothing like hanging out in a bookstore, listening to people talk about their lives and their reading, and being surrounded by books that explore, explain, reflect on, and laugh at life.

You never know who you will meet, things you will discover, or what you will experience.

Our world is high tech and that won’t change. While our bookstores will be run on technology in the background, the real current is the human touch. It’s something that is and remains important.

We need to remind ourselves that it’s this human touch that forms the foundation of relationships and forms the foundation of a good business. It’s a good thing to keep this as our primary focus.

Today I’ve been watching all of the regional bookseller associations report their weekly bestseller lists. Go Set a Watchman remains at #1 for Fiction, even the skeptics from my book group agreed to add a lunch discussion so we could get in a conversation while the book has been grabbing attention everywhere.

There’s a saying in the book business that all publicity is good publicity.

The latest controversy is over Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. May it keep on selling and prompting valuable dialogue.

The latest controversy is over Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. May it keep on selling and prompting valuable dialogue.

Even though Harper Lee’s book has been widely criticized and some people have complained they’ve been duped that the book is new, the country is curious. To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic and sadly, the story of equality and racism is still unfolding.

In bookstores across the U.S., the conversation is happening … about racism, great novels, sequels and prequels, what makes a classic, humanity, hope, and why we need literature.

Controversy is fine. It signals that we’re thinking critically about a lot of things. Authors and books offer us these opportunities to keep searching, learning, evolving. Books bring us out of our lonely corners and connect us with what is meaningful.

But first, we have to buy the book and be part of the conversation.

May books continue to make us uncomfortable about our unfinished work, and prompt us to change and grow for the better.