Listen to National Public Radio and you never quite know how your life might be affected. This week Diane Rehm interviewed Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism: the Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World and what lingered for me was the value meditation has in changing anything.

Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism, says change begins with our thoughts and leads to new mindfulness and way of being

Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism, says change begins with us

During the conversation, Mr. Ricard noted the link between meditation and our neurological wiring. A commitment to thinking differently, and using meditation as our dedication to the effort, can bring amazing results.

In our work with bookstore turn-arounds, it’s become clear that the obstacles to turning financial losses to business sustainability are deeply rooted negative beliefs, mostly about money, profits, greed and business. Lump them all together in a negative light, and we limit our capacity to create a healthy business.

Here are some positive beliefs that can help guide daily activities in creating a sustainable business:

* My awareness will help guide a positive outcome.
* I seek to learn how to prioritize my work so that I give the bookstore the best and most important things it needs.
* My ongoing learning will help me broaden my awareness and strengthen my ability to lead the business.
* If I want a different outcome, I am willing to rethink my routines.
* Our profits indicate that we are making magical connections with our customers; that they choose to buy from us confirms when we are paying attention and making wise choices.
* I am part of the business community that values people. Our presence provides healthy places to work and honors reading and lifelong learning.
* Our profits are what allows us to continue to contribute to a healthy local economy.

We often refer to the “Art and Science of Bookselling” because both are necessary for sustainability. For some, the art comes easy and the science, not so much. Expanding our insights and learning skills begins with mindfulness and openness.

Today’s op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities” is a reminder that we need diversity in our lives … from decisions we make in government, business and non-profit organizations to our own lives and relationships. Especially in today’s world where conflicts are escalating, disease is spreading, and there’s rising concern about our ability to create peace, live safely, and use our resources wisely, we need literature and philosophy, art and poetry for perspective – and hope.

Books in a fieldVisit a bookstore and you’ll find artists and writers, readers and philosophers. In the back room, we’re busy with the science of electronically sending purchase orders, analyzing section reports, and assessing our profitability, but there are so many aspects of the business that are purely from the heart. Discovering an amazing new writer during a discussion with a publishers sales rep, picking up and flipping through the pages of a beautiful new book, writing a review for the store’s newsletter or a shelf-talker for a favorite title, and of course, suggesting books to customers are constant activities that happen every day.

If you’ve been thinking of leaving your career to open a bookstore and want this kind of balance in what you do for a living, keep exploring a career in bookselling. For those of us who enjoy the arts, but need to earn an income, have business skills yet want each day to be filled with interesting, meaningful conversations, owning a bookstore provides all of this. Success in life and work has many definitions. I agree with Nicholas Kristof, the humanities are to be valued.

I marvel at American booksellers for their tenacity and I envy European booksellers for the support they get from their countries.

From big box stores to Amazon, they’ve stuck to their principles even when predatory pricing presents tremendous hurdles to sustainability. Today’s op-ed piece in The New York Times by Pamela Druckerman offers a perspective for American reader on just how some European countries are supporting their locally owned bookshops for the sake of “biblio diversity.”

The Watermill in Aberfeldy, Scotland offers a beautiful selection of books and great service ... and fabulous coffee too.

The Watermill in Aberfeldy, Scotland offers a beautiful selection of books and great service … and fabulous coffee too.

First, countries have witnessed there’s a lot to be lost when mega corporations sell below cost for the sole purpose of driving out competition:

“The French secret is deeply un-American: fixed book prices. Its 1981 ‘Lang law,’ named after former Culture Minister Jack Lang, says that no seller can offer more than 5 percent off the cover price of new books. That means a book costs more or less the same wherever you buy it in France, even online.”

Yes, books are protected because they are not “potatoes”. Books are ideas. Putting ideas into the hands of just a few corporations is scary.

Placing a cap on discounting limits predatory pricing as a competitive advantage. This is a game-changer. and provides a different dynamic for European booksellers and readers. This supports small business. It also says books and ideas are valued.

In the U.S. we have to continue to out-smart and out-wit the mega corporations by changing the rules of the game and competing on ways that are local, authentic, human, and about the in-person experience.

We just arrived home from an on-site visit in a community that once had a Barnes & Noble bookstore. When the lease was up for renewal, B&N decided to exit the market, leaving millions of dollars of annual sales to customers up for grabs. In this case, our client, Thorne Donnelley of Liberty Bookstore, is in the midst of expanding his bookstore and revving up marketing to capture this gap in the local book market. Yet, what about all of those other communities now without a bookstore?

Libery Bookstore

Thorne Donnelley seizes the opportunity to capture the West Palm Beach, Florida market now that B&N is gone.

While there are people opening bookstores, there aren’t enough who have looked at the gaps and said “I will open bookstore in my community.” Many markets are now underserved, which often means the online Goliath get the business by default.

If you are thinking that then person to open a book store is you, here are some important considerations you may not be hearing from the media or even your own network of family, friends, and colleagues:

1. Print reading remains strong – According to research published in Publishers Weekly, ebook sales may level off at just thirty percent of the market, way less than the original predictions by IT professionals (who were self-serving in their forecasts). Seventy percent of book sales happens in print.

2. Younger people choose print too – When you think of kids growing up with printed picture books and those who fell in love with reading by devouring the Harry Potter adventures, there’s no surprise that many teens want to read in print. They’re using electronics for social interaction, but there is a perceived benefit to holding a book.

3. We need the balance between high-tech and high-touch – Many people go to a bookstore because it’s it feels like a sanctuary. People who work from home vocalize their need to be around other people. Most of us need a balance of time alone and time with others, for conversation and connection. Bookstores are third places and now that many communities are without bookstores, people recognize what’s missing.

Bookstores will not disappear if people keep asking the beautiful question, “Who will open a book store in our town?” If you’ve had dreams of opening a bookstore, but thought it was no longer a wise choice for your resources or time, keep learning and investigating the opportunities. A bookstore will meet the needs of readers to discover great books and give reasons to gather and talk about ideas. Bookstores fill that human need.

Throughout the holiday season, we’d been carefully watching the National Retail Federation’s daily reports on the outlook for retailers. There was lots of talk about how social media would be aggressively used, along with steep discounting to attract customers into stores. And even more speculation: Has the economy sufficiently recovered to put people in a gift-giving mood?

Many national retailers struggled to not only get people physically into their bricks-and-mortar stores, but also eroded profits by discounting to drive sales, believing that even a modest gain was better than a record loss.

Holiday Sales Strong at Indie Bookstores

Holiday cheer at the new location for Litchfield Books

There was quite a different story for booksellers, according to this week’s report from Publishers Weekly. Brookline Booksmith, an award-winning indie bookstore, reported a “stellar year.” The Book Cellar in Chicago boasted a 38% holiday increase, and Beaverdale Books in Des Moines noted being up 29% for the entire year. In previous updates from Publishers Weekly, Andersons Bookshops in the Chicago area, BookPeople in Austin, and a number of others also reported strong holiday seasons.

How do we explain these double-digit increases in sales at indie bookstores that generally offer no discounting? What’s even more noteworthy is that this year lacked the mega blockbusters like last year’s Steve Jobs biography, and e-book sales continue to increase (yet at a much slower rate). If you’re thinking of opening a bookstore or buying an existing store, you might want to ask yourself the same question … what’s special about indie booksellers that they would outpace national retailers?

Maybe a growing number of people want to unplug from the hype and experience something authentic. Perhaps shopping at a place where you can browse “real” books is appealing in a society where a frenetic pace has become the “new normal.” Having someone smile and offer to gift wrap your book for free? How refreshing. Hanging out in a place that won’t text you an offer while you’re browsing, but will offer some delightful personal recommendations? That’s where I want to be – and suspect that I’m not alone!

Sensible family-owned businesses don’t generally jump at the latest trend or rely on hype and bling to connect with customers. While national retailers scurry for the latest high-tech tool or play games with prices, indie business owners will do what they do best: present really great merchandise, invite you to come in and feel comfortable, be welcoming and genuinely nice on a human level, and be incredibly grateful that you choose to support a local business.

Bravo, indie booksellers for a stellar season! The “Indie” and “Shop Local” movements continue to gain momentum, and you’ve proven that the most important business strategies are not only fundamental, but timeless as well.

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!”

People who read and especially those who own bookstores are very special souls. Last week we held our spring workshop retreat and while we never really know how the group will relate and how the week will unfold, we are always reminded of the magic that is created when we put our hearts and minds together on the same page.

Independent businesses, thanks to the ‘Shop Local’ movements, have been gaining momentum. But at the same time, people love shopping online and are growing more comfortable with hand-held technologies. The realities of high-tech influence today’s bookstores as does our continued human need for high-touch. Developing ways to address both led us into some wonderfully rich territory.

Spring Workshop Retreat Graduates

Creating a special sense of place for our community took many varied forms. One store will have a nook of comic books and action figures (a passion of one of the owners). Another new store owner will stretch the world of adult fantasy and science fiction into a concept that will help children learn about science and expand their creative horizons. One will spotlight works by local artists. Still another will focus on healthy (and happy) living. And then there’s another who will explore publishing on local topics.

What’s emerging is an ever-larger way of looking at what a bookstore does, what it carries, and how it serves. Today’s bookstore is not just about coming in to pick a book off the shelf. It’s about catering to a lifestyle, sharing interests, and creating a gathering place. Merchandise selections go beyond books. Programs are not limited to visiting authors. Sustainability rests on multiple sources of income.

While there were two people who had worked in bookstores, most had never worked in a retail setting. Sharing insights, lessons, knowledge, and wisdom from other careers, we all stretched our ideas of what a bookstore is for a community … and all the possibilities that can make indie bookstores even more fun, interesting, and vital.

The book industry is one big tent where everyone belongs. Readers tend to think and feel deeply and are interested in the big wide world of life. Unlike online stores, there’s nothing like visiting a comfy bookstore filled with wonderful items where you can simply show up and discover something that might change the course of your life. This very fact that we are readers and serve readers is what makes us optimistic about the future of bookstores.

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.

Now that the political season is heating up, we have to wonder how we’ll ever be able to get out of the financial mess that’s affecting the entire world. What will the new economy look like and who will help create it?

America has always been a land of entrepreneurs with a “can-do” attitude. Just last week, we visited Athens, Georgia to help put the finishing touches on a new indie bookstore, founded by one of the country’s youngest bookstore entrepreneurs. We first met Janet Geddis at BookExpo in 2009 and later that year, she attended our five-day intensive workshop retreat on owning a bookstore. Attentive every moment, she took copious notes, engaged in “group think” with the class, and asked smart, timely questions about the industry.

Indie Bookstore Grand Opening

The Avid Reader opens in Athens, Georgia this week.

Her greatest challenge was the lack of start-up capital. Without it, how would Janet get this business off the ground? We knew she had the intelligence and passion to create something wonderful if she could only find the funds. What has subsequently unfolded in Athens is a story we hope to see played out in communities everywhere.

Janet relied on her personal network and social media to share her dreams with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and the local press. With an already strong ‘Shop Local’ movement, a younger and educated demographic from the University of Georgia, and an interest in grass-roots efforts, Janet was cultivating fertile ground and kept widening her network, winning fans along the way.

She started small, launching a web store to get going, showing up at festivals and other gatherings with a table to sell used books, created fund-raising events around her photographic art. She bartered, sent out ‘wish lists’ of things she needed to get the store open. She was never reluctant to ask for the help she needed. And she was determined to realize her dream – even when a bookseller from another town suddenly opened (and just as suddenly, closed).

This week, Janet will officially open Avid Bookshop in a quaint historic neighborhood of young families, professors, and students. A large replica of a colorful hot air balloon brightens the children’s room, courtesy of an artist friend. The fiction section has been personally selected by Janet and when chatting with her new staff, Tom, Sonia, and Rachel, you can foretell they will sell an amazing amount of fiction because of their passion for debut authors and taste for masterful writing. There’s a display of hand-made books created by another local artist.

It literally took a village to create an indie bookstore, and a young entrepreneur made it all happen. When we create a new economy with integrity and connection, we’re headed in the right direction — and a new generation of entrepreneurs, just like Janet, will lead the way.

What a fascinating time … and how refreshing it is to see ‘Local’ become fashionable. From Sarasota, FL to Rapid City, SD and Nantucket, MA to Bainbridge Island, WA, ‘Shop Local’ initiatives are moving full steam ahead, where residents want fewer national chains and more local flavor.

Was this predictable? Maybe in part. The last three decades brought us a deluge of stores and shopping centers that began to look the same. Perfectly coiffed with the same merchandise, their appeal didn’t have staying power. When the economy softened, corporate decisions, meant to preserve profits and shareholder investments, resulted in dark storefronts all across the country.

Bookstores sponsor events

Bookstores draw the right clientele

And who survived? The tenacious, spirited indie retailers — yes, the “Mom & Pop” stores. Not only have they weathered economic ups and downs (most recently created by the temporary deep discounting offered by the chains when they first moved to town), owners of independent businesses held on because their entire livelihood was on the line. Their commitment to community reached far beyond hitting profit targets – they were in it for the long haul.

Now that hundreds of communities are without bookstores — some driven out by the proliferation of Wall Street financed chains, and now Borders stores closing as a result of the ongoing mismanagement of the revolving executives who ran the company — there are openings for new anchors on Main Street and in retail developments from coast to coast. An independent bookstore is a wise choice to fill an opening, especially if the objective is to draw an upscale demographic.

While some would have us believe that e-books are rendering bookstores obsolete, brick-and-mortar bookstores are still relevant and here’s why. Printed books account for 85% of book sales and research now shows that those who read e-books still value — and buy — printed books. Bookstores are considered gathering places and symbolize an educated community that values learning as a lifelong endeavor. Also, people who read want to know what to read next. Independent booksellers have long been recognized for their genuine passion for books, honesty in making recommendations, and their ability to help publishers launch new writers. In most redevelopment polls, people say they most want a bookstore in their community — and will support it.

To developers and landlords, we suggest you look beyond the media’s obsession with technology to see the opportunities in your own backyard. An indie bookstore will draw the right demographic, hold a long-term commitment to the area, and will contribute to the well-being of the community.

As consumers become more and more mindful that a ‘Local’ focus helps their community, the momentum is continuing to build. To ensure that developments gain (rather than lose) appeal, you need look no further than an indie bookstore. It may require some investment and accommodation on the developer or landlord’s part to get a bookstore open for business, but its presence will generate ongoing tangible results.