This month we were fortunate to get to an item that’s been on our “Bucket List” for some time … visiting New Zealand. You might recall that the city of Christchurch had a nasty earthquake in 2011. Homes, churches, and businesses were severely damaged and tourism stopped.

Christchurch is on the rebound and the future now looks exciting as the city and the people have taken a mindful approach on how to rebuild.

In the meantime, the shops and restaurants are open!

Scorpio Books was among the retailers and restaurant owners to re-open after the earthquake - in a shipping container.

Scorpio Books was among the retailers and restaurant owners to re-open after the earthquake – in a shipping container.

We visited Re-START, a brilliantly conceived outdoor retail space consisting of temporary buildings made from shipping containers. When you walk into one of the shops you’d just think you were in a small space … the walls are painted, light fixtures are up, the HVAC works, and it’s business as usual.

Restaurants were serving people who were seated at bistro tables inside containers and on surrounding space.

The whole idea lends itself to authentic charm. Make lemonade out of those lemons!

Visiting Re-START is a reminder that especially after a catastrophe, we need places to gather, eat, and shop. Cafes and shops are symbols of normalcy; they are places people crave when their worlds have been turned upside down.

Small businesses have always been known for their resiliency, and the Kiwis proved that great new ideas can come from necessity.

Take a look around your community and you’ll see that the retail landscape has changed over time. Shops and restaurants go in and out of business as tastes and buying habits change or the cost of doing business escalates. Neighborhood demographics shift, business owners retire, and new concepts emerge. When change is such a constant, it’s surprising to see the same businesses remain at the top of the list of what people most want in their communities: coffee shops, bakeries, and bookstores.

The internet may have come to dominate much of our lives, but there’s still a demand for places to gather and connect with other people. High tech simply cannot satisfy some of our needs for high touch.

Workshop retreat for new bookstore owners and managers

Entrepreneurs from four countries gathered to discuss the opportunities to put a new vision to today’s bookstore.

During last week’s workshop, Owning a Bookstore: The Business Essentials, eighteen entrepreneurs from four countries gathered to discuss trends, develop competitive advantages, learn the book industry’s metrics and best practices, and chart a course for owning a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in the age of technology. While some still used their gadgets to take notes or check messages, the conversation throughout the week kept coming back to the hunger for a sense of place, a healthy environment to learn and grow and gather, the satisfaction from holding a book and turning its pages, and an appreciation for the many ways in which locally owned businesses contribute to their communities.

The growth of e-book sales has slowed and will eventually plateau. Rather than replace books in print, e-readers have simply offered yet one more option for ways to read. E-books have certainly added some turmoil to the book industry and the bookstore business, but by no means will they lead to its demise. While electronic reading represents a little over 20 percent of sales, printed books command the overwhelming share of industry sales.

Format alone does not define a bookstore that sees its mission as far greater than selling books as commodities. A bookstore can be so much more than a place to buy books: a place where we can escape from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, find comfort and peace, stimulate our minds, stretch our understanding of ourselves and the world, connect with others, create community, and contribute to a sustainable local economy. More than ever, there’s a need for high touch in this world of high tech.

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.

Every other day, it seems that we’ll hear a prediction of the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores and public libraries. For the most part, these doomsday voices believe that digital content is a perfectly acceptable alternative to print media. Some are pundits, some are individuals who can’t bear to be without their gadgets, and some even work within the book industry.

Yet there are a good number of us who believe otherwise, for a variety of reasons. Granted, if books are perceived as nothing more than a commodity, like clothing or food products, the ability to sustain a retail storefront will be that much more difficult since there will always be another party selling the same item for less – sometimes even below cost – in our free-market economy.

In our workshops and training programs, we ask booksellers and store owners a simple question: “What is it that you’re selling?” Most everyone already knows that the answer is far more complex than “Why, books, of course.” We help them understand and articulate that if a customer is to be inspired and motivated to make a purchase in their store, the intangible reasons they will do so go far beyond books: how they viscerally feel upon entering and being within your space, their need for information and/or entertainment, how you’ve been able to help them with a concern by finding just the right item.

We wonder how authors must feel to have their meticulously researched and well-written books described as “digital content.” It seems as if their work is no longer being valued as it once was. And we wonder the extent to which publishers realize any significant savings in the long run by simultaneously releasing both hardcover and e-book editions. Most publishers will acknowledge the important role that indie booksellers play in having a new release noticed, yet many of their practices are less than supportive of that same bookseller.

And consumers must be continuously reminded that where they choose to spend their hard-earned dollars makes a difference to the very community in which they live. Are people so blasé that they wouldn’t care if a vibrant retail shopping district becomes a ghost-town, or if their community can no longer provide essential city services because the sales tax they would have otherwise collected is not being paid to online retailers?

There’s no question that the internet, in a number of ways, has improved the quality of our lives. But there’s a price to be paid if we go too far in that direction: social isolation, civic unrest, systems collapse and so much more. Retail brick-and-mortar bookstores can remain relevant by grasping the big picture: balancing the use of technology with their passion for books and reading, their ability to deliver top-notch customer service, the creation of a warm and inviting atmosphere, and the opportunities they offer to bring people together.

Idlewild Books in NYC, a haven for the world traveler

We are beginning a brand new era. Just when some members of the media proclaimed that the ebook would kill bookstores, people are speaking up, finding ways to see indie bookstores in their communities continue to keep the doors open.

The closing of Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, Tennessee has been a huge loss for the community. Shortly after the announcement was made by its parent company, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, people pulled together to find out how to fill the void. Besides being open every day, the bookstore offered wildly popular author events and children’s programs. It contributed to the annul book festival, supported the good work of numerous literacy non-profit organizations, helped schools and others fundraise, and added to the rich cultural life in Nashville. People wanted to find a way to get all of that back.

We joined the second meeting, which was held in February at the Green Hills Public Library, to provide information and present some opportunities. More than 40 people attended … all committed to find a way to keep an indie bookstore alive and contributing to their rich literary cultural life.

The desire stretches to other communities throughout the country. Ithaca, New York is working on a bookstore co-op and within three weeks has gathered pledges worth $250,000 to help develop a new community bookstore.

These communities are making a huge statement about the worth of a physical bookstore — to the quality of our daily lives, the richness of our communities, and the abilities of our literacy efforts. Bookstores have always combined the entrepreneurial energy with philanthropic efforts. What’s emerging is a new way to combine both … communities creating community bookstores.