Yesterday I got a letter from the AmazonSmile Foundation. The international charity that my husband and I had once upon a time is eligible for a contribution. Never mind that the charity was dissolved eighteen months ago, I still wanted to learn what Amazon is doing to support non-profits.

The letter reads “AmazonSmile is a program where Amazon donates 0.5% of the purchase price of eligible products to the charitable organizations selected by our customers.” Note that 0.5% is one half of one percent and the donation only applies on eligible products.

How does this stack up against common practices of independent bookstores when they’re working with schools and other worthy efforts? Indie booksellers will often offer ten to twenty percent.

Here’s the math on a huge purchase of $10,000:
AmazonSmile: $50
Indie Bookstore: $1,000 to $2,000

Indie bookstores are part of the community when Amazon only pays lip service.

Indie bookstores are part of the community when Amazon only pays lip service.

Plus, independent booksellers will also typically offer donations of silent auction items, review copies of upcoming books, materials for teachers, rent a costume character to visit the schools throughout the year, and sponsor visits from real authors and illustrators. Talk about adding value!

Recently I received a newsletter from a local non-profit we support asking us to designate their organization with the AmazonSmile program. While these volunteers work countless hours and do their very best, the decision to promote this program was not informed. Why would they want to support Amazon when the local bookstore offers them so much?

Some say you should be able to have both. Maybe for a while, but not for long. This is another one of Amazon’s maneuvers to eek more and more out of local businesses to grow Goliath. Once it has dominated more and more industries, we’ll all shop Amazon because Main Street shops will be empty and there won’t be any more silent auction items at those charity events.

CNBC will premiere “Amazon Rising” this Sunday at 9 pm EST. Where you shop says a lot about who you are and what you value. Amazon is brilliant at marketing and withholding information from reaching the pages of their annual reports. They’re also wildly successful in undercutting prices since the Wall Street investors are subsidizing their strategies to price below cost. Just how far will this go? Or, maybe the question is how long will governments and people support the race to monopolize shopping … for everything, everywhere.

Our work to spread the logic and wisdom behind shopping local continues against mega funding, predatory pricing, corporate bullying, and the race to own it all. Owners and booksellers of independent bookstores are tenacious, clever, authentic, and involved. I’ve never seen a more impassioned, articulate, and tenacious group of professionals. We’re just not used to the bullying part. Even though we can recommend some great picture books that address this issue, they are not likely the character-building books Amazon execs want to read.

 

 

At the top of our “to do” list while in New York City for BookExpo this year was a visit to La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem. We first met the owner, Aurora Anaya-Cerda, in September of 2007 when she attended our intensive workshop retreat, Owning a Bookstore: The Business Essentials.  Even before the economy tumbled, resources for Aurora were scarce. But she never lost her enthusiasm and hope for her very own community-oriented bookstore.

Aurora Anaya Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore

Aurora Anaya Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore

Aurora was one of the first start-ups to pursue crowd funding. The effort not only brought forth a plethora of positive press, more than 500 people surfaced to help fund a bookstore for “El Barrio”. She doggedly pursued every opportunity for start-up grants, and was finally able to put the pieces in place to open her shop. Today, La Casa Azul Bookstore is one of several other woman-owned businesses on East 103rd Street. But opening a community bookstore wasn’t all that Aurora had in mind – she also launched the East Harlem Children’s Book Festival, leading the effort to celebrate literature and the arts in her community.

Tiny musicians rehearse for the store's first anniversary celebration

Tiny musicians rehearse for the store’s first anniversary celebration

On the day of her first anniversary celebration, Saturday, June 1, we arrived to hear the sound of music – not from a boom-box, but from stringed instruments. Following our ears to the special events area in the store’s basement, we found dozens of young children, dressed in black and white, playing their pint-sized violins. Music teachers from a nearby music academy had each child’s full attention as they rehearsed for their first public performance. Then we went out to the open-air courtyard behind the bookstore to listen to Aurora’s warm welcome and congratulatory words from Congressman Charlie Rangle, and watch the children parade onto the stage to play “What a Wonderful World,” much to the delight of everyone gathered for the occasion.

Aurora has implemented a number of other programs and activities as well. There’s the Beans and Rice book group, De Colores Summer Reading program for kids, art exhibits and performances in her basement event area and outdoor courtyard, a bilingual children’s story-time – in all, more than twenty special events each month at La Casa Azul. And her small shop has become a “must” for Latino authors like Junot Diaz and Sandra Cisneros.

La Casa Azul signAurora’s dream has become a reality, yet is still a work in progress. Not only does the whole East Harlem community celebrate with her, the White House recently recognized La Casa Azul as a “Champion of Change.” Congratulations, Aurora! This is the indie spirit at its finest.

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 wrap-up of our “bookstore make-over” project with Left Bank Books is now drawing near. Over the past month, we presented a detailed plan to the store’s owners, Kris and Jarek (Jay), and set a timeline for the work that needed to be done.

As a result, September has been a busy month at Left Bank Books. In addition to the make-over and their typical robust line-up of events, a lot of planning went in to the Sept. 24th hosting of Tony La Russa, former manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, who launched his memoir, One Last Strike, celebrating 50 years of his baseball career. They needed ten additional staff to accommodate the number of fans expected, and wound up selling 1,400 copies of his book!

Adding color helps define the space and helps attract customers deep into the bookstore space.

For the make-over, Jay was able to do much of the painting during the last couple of weeks and we’re already seeing results. The purpose of choosing new paint colors was to delineate different areas of the store, since it had grown to occupy three storefronts over time. The first two sections are separated by a wall with beautiful curves and architectural detail at the top. Our design team selected a paint color called “camelback” to help those details stand out a bit more, lending a softer feeling to the store than the stark white that had been on all the walls and ceiling. Then, to attract customers’ eyes and pull them to the back of the store, the team chose a “reflecting pool” color (aqua blue) for the back wall which will soon house two important departments: Children’s and Comforts of Home. Two other colors were introduced as well: a sassy green for the front entrance, and a “cajun red” for some display tables.

For stores like Left Bank that have been in business for years, it’s fairly common to find them feeling a bit too full. Spinner racks and publisher “dumps” find their way onto the sales floor, but never seem to leave. One section spills over to another and starts to feel disconnected. So in addition to suggesting new paint colors, some accent lighting, and calling more attention to the staircase leading to the store’s lower level, perhaps the most important part of the make-over was to re-imagine the planogram – moving sections around for better traffic flow and dedicating a larger space for the children’s department. A planogram is just a simple term for the map that shows what goes where, using prime spaces judiciously and grouping like products based on who shops there. It’s a fun exercise that begins with a review of sales and inventory turns by section.

Working at the mall back in the 1970s, I never realized that the skills I was learning – working with a planogram and seeing how displays were planned during the buying season – would be put to such good use decades later. As the seasons change and as a store grows through the years, it’s a good idea to start fresh with a blank canvas and decide how much to invest in which types of merchandise … and change the sales floor to reflect the inventory and merchandise mix.

The two areas at Left Bank Books that I get most excited about are the front entrance and the children’s area. Yesterday I stopped by our local upholstery store to look for some fabric to cover the seat of an adorable wooden rocking chair that Kris discovered. The striped fabric was perfect complement to all the colors we selected for the store.

With a little bit of paint, fabric, some new lighting, and a new planogram, Left Bank Books is well on the way to looking dramatically different. We’ll return to the store on October 10th to work with the staff on rearranging some sections, put some finishing touches on focal point displays, and listen for customers who say, “What a great bookstore!”