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.

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.

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.

How is it that independent bookstores have not disappeared even though plenty of people predicted they would fall by the wayside like the record stores?

Harvard Book Store asks, "Tell Us Why You Love Our Bookstore".

The staff at the Harvard Book Store asked, “Tell Us Why You Love Our Bookstore”.

A Harvard Business School professor joined us during our one-day workshop at this year’s Winter Institute, the annual conference sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, with the goal of finding out why independent booksellers are so resilient.

It seems each decade members of the media find one more seemingly compelling reason that sparks the demise of the bookstore. Yet booksellers are creative and collaborative. They care and share and hang together in tough times. When booksellers put all of the energy and creativity together, something amazing usually results.

This is why independent bookstores are thriving, even in a digital world.

The first ever National Independent Bookstore Day was held on Saturday with great fanfare from coast to coast. In this morning’s issue of Shelf-Awareness (a free daily newsletter about the book business), we learned about the parties, events, decorated cakes and wine and locally crafted beer, the readings and signings, and the fun that took place in indie bookstores.

The first-ever National Independent Bookstore Day was sponsored by the American Booksellers Association May 2, 2015.

The first-ever National Independent Bookstore Day was sponsored by the American Booksellers Association May 2, 2015 and the celebrations took place in communities across the country.

 

Celebrating community at independent bookstores… what a great reason for a party.

Booksellers are thinkers and dreamers, entrepreneurs and business leaders. When the majority sees difficulty, indie bookstores are busy finding a way to turn the challenge into an opportunity … and building community, having fun along the way.

Most of us in the world of book selling don’t think of us as salespeople and that’s a good thing. While owners and managers are clear that the store doesn’t stay in business unless there are sales, inspiring a purchase (and making the numbers) happens in the most subtle ways in the bookstore. And the best booksellers don’t have the kinds of personalities we typically think of for people in sales.

A display of Ann Patchett's personal recommendations at Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

A display of Ann Patchett’s personal recommendations at Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

Last week while we were visiting Nashville, where in the late 1980s and early 1990s I managed the beloved Davis-Kidd Booksellers, we stopped into Parnassus to say “hello”, get some new photos, and shop. A conversation with Nathan, one of the Parnassus booksellers who previously worked for Joseph-Beth (the indie chain that purchased Davis-Kidd), led to my purchase of one more book … and was a reminder of what qualities make for a really great bookseller.

The conversation began when I picked up a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel Lila and commented to Nathan about how much my book group enjoyed Gilead. Nathan said he loved Robinson’s new book and then asked what other kinds of books I loved to read. When I explained that I absolutely adore reading “novels in letters” and thought Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard did not get the notice it deserved, the heart of book selling magic began.

Nathan introduced me to the novel The Light and The Dark by a Russian author Mikhail Shishkin, a novel in letters! I’d never heard of this novelist and would not likely have discovered it on my own. Nathan went to get a copy of the book and placed it in my hands. And then he told me about the letters between the two characters, the historical background, and what makes the book memorable.

I added the book to my pile.

This is book selling at its greatest. One reader connects with another by asking questions, listening, sharing what they’ve read or know about that may be of interest.

Is it selling? Sure. But it’s mostly about caring about others and wanting to share the remarkable experience of reading a really great book.

Bravo, Parnassus! And thank you, Nathan.

This is an era of opportunity for indie bookstores to reach beyond the four walls of the store to bring tremendous value to your region. Note that instead of ‘community’, we’re now saying ‘region’ … with all of the store closings in the last decade, people feel lucky if their city or village has a bookstore, even luckier if it’s a lively independent bookstore. Customers are driving great distances for a ‘real bookstore’, even when books are just a click away.

Politics & Prose launches The Writer's Cottage building deeper relationships with customers and extending their reach throughout the region

Politics & Prose launches The Writer’s Cottage building deeper relationships with customers and extending their reach throughout the region

To move books out of the realm of commodities, indie booksellers like Washington D.C.’s Politics & Prose has developed a series of workshops and now a writer’s retreat. Spend a week on your own relaxing and writing, stay a week with a writing coach to guide you, join a week-long program with other writers. Engaging local writing teachers, partnering with a locally-owned lodging business, reaching out to fill a regional need … how very indie.

The bookstore can be the creative force being pulling all of the partners together, all parties promote like crazy to build attendance, each share in the proceeds, each benefit from having developed a one-of-a-kind experience that brings them tremendous word-of-mouth-marketing and customer loyalty.

Key is the focus on learning and growing … especially now with Baby Boomers retiring (many times, early) and wanting to engage their brains in meaningful things, there are all kinds of opportunities a bookstore can create in a “series” that appeal to travelers, lovers of classical literature, history buffs, military retirees, knitters and crafters, those writing family histories for their children and grandchildren, and on and on.

Building a successful business starts with love and an understanding of what others want or need. Booksellers are often the ones to be the creative force in bringing everyone together to create those unforgettable experiences that earn respect, appreciation, and loyalty, just like what Politics & Prose is doing with The Writer’s Cottage.

Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri is the recipient of the Bookstore Make-Over Project sponsored by The Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates to celebrate their twentieth anniversary serving independent bookstores. Seventeen bookstores from across the U.S. entered the contest.

“Our goal was to select one project that would help illustrate affordable solutions to issues that many bookstores have in common,” noted founder Donna Paz Kaufman. “Left Bank Books provided the perfect combination of opportunities,” she added. In the store’s application, owners Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele commented, “Frankly, it’s looking really tired at this point and the layout does not work for us at all anymore.” In addition to their design and merchandising expertise, Paz & Associates will contribute $2,000 for upgrades and materials, with labor provided by the store.

The design group at Paz & Associates will address display windows, the front of store experience, traffic flow throughout the space, focal point displays, signage and promotional messaging, the “Wow” factor for creating word-of-mouth marketing, and event staging. The project has an October 15 completion date. Watch for updates on this blog!

During the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in New Orleans last month, there were high spirits — even before the first cocktail party. From the moment booksellers began arriving in the city that embodies strength and resilience, everyone began comparing notes: 2011 finished with a roar, some stores up as much as 48% in sales over 2010.

Watchung Booksellers

Watchung Booksellers, a successful neighborhood bookstore capitalizes on great service, an amazing inventory, and an inviting atmosphere

After the demise of the Borders chain, many readers sought out local indie bookstores. The American Express Small Business Saturday promotion helped educate cardholders about the value of shopping locally. And, physical books make wonderful gifts, especially when recommended by a savvy bookseller for that hard-to-please relative. All of these factors helped fuel the positive momentum.

During the conference, even more reasons for optimism surfaced. The new Verso Advertising survey indicated that while e-books have gained popularity, about 50% of people have no interest in reading on an electronic device. For avid readers who have adopted e-reading, the survey showed that they plan to purchase the same number of print books as electronic books this year. Books are a part of our material culture and the demand for printed books is not going away.

Publishers were at the convention with heart-felt support. From small presses to large publishing houses, representatives were there to give us the inside scoop on debut authors and exciting new books. It’s the glue that binds us and what gives indie booksellers an incredibly important role in the world of books. Indie booksellers, because of their passionate recommendations – that are not predicated on any computer-generated algorithm – help introduce new authors and break-out works. Without indies, we might only get to see those titles now stacked high on the floor at the warehouse clubs, or be able to sort through the kazillions of e-books online, few of which get much marketing support due to the quality of the writing.

Indie booksellers are now talking of expanding the number of locations, redesigning their current stores, and expanding events. They are changing the complexion of their inventories, spotlighting wonderful books and other fun items that reinforce the community’s character and make it fun to come to the bookstore to shop. It’s been a long haul, but people finally seem to be over the fascination with big box stores. They understand the importance of strengthening local economies, and want to find peace, comfort, and a truly good read from their locally owned bookstore.

Occupy Amazon.com

Occupy Amazon.com movement gains momentum

When I blasted my friends and neighbors about Amazon.com’s recent promotion, I quickly got responses like “disgusting” and “who would want to support that kind of bad corporate behavior”. One honest response was “I will never buy anything from Amazon.com again.” What’s the fuss? The offer encouraged customers to use the company’s smartphone price check app — essentially, go shop in a store, scan the item you want, and buy from us and you’ll receive a discount of up to $5. Customers are allowed to do this up to three times on Saturday, December 10.

Josie Leavitt, co-owner of The Flying Pig Children’s Bookstore, blogged “Honestly, I’m sick of Amazon. I’m tired of people saying, ‘But it’s so much cheaper than what you can offer.’ Yes, it’s true, the new Steve Jobs book is 49% off at Amazon, and that’s 3 to 6% more than I can buy the book for from the publisher or a wholesaler. So, yes, I’m sick of Amazon acting as its own retail distribution center and getting a far better discount than I can. I’m tired of faithfully paying sales tax and having customers tell me how much they like saving money with Amazon.”

In a letter to Jeff Bezos, Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, stated, “We could call your $5 bounty to app-users a cheesy marketing move and leave it at that. In fact, it is the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries.”

Is it legal? Absolutely. Is it ethical? Hardly.

In the United States, you can sell below your own cost. You can sell below cost on so many items as long as your stockholders are willing to wait for you to kill off your competition and then hike prices to regain your original profit margins — when you are king of the marketplace. Amazon.com poured millions of dollars fighting states’ efforts to get them to collect sales tax. Main Street shop keepers have never questioned the value of collecting sales tax for the greater good of their communities.

We write and share this not to make anyone feel guilty for owning a Kindle. We simply think it is important for all of us to be aware of what’s happening to make informed choices based on values.

In the book business, we’ve seen relentless pursuit by Amazon.com to own the entire publishing and bookstore business — from printed books to ebooks, publishing to retail. There’s tremendous danger in having one company dominate in any industry, but especially when one represents the world of ideas.

Where you choose to shop makes a statement about who you are. We hope you’ll choose to shop local.