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.

Each day offers an opportunity to learn something new, especially when you open a page of a book. Last night, I read an insight about architecture that sparked thought about the future of bookstores.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

Stephen Mouzon has often been quoted about the mindfulness of architecture and urban design in Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs). Since Mark and I moved to a TND on Amelia Island twelve years ago and now I serve as president of the neighborhood association board, I’ve loved learning about what makes us feel safe and secure and at home. “Contentment” has been a big word for me as I age, and what I value even more as the years go by is beauty, the comforts of home, and holding a book in my hands while the words enrich the moments.

Mouzon, who after years of studying neighborhoods and homes people love, has developed the leading guide to traditional home design, Traditional Construction Patterns: Design & Detail Rules of Thumb. While the last fifty years of home construction has led to McMansions, sprawl, and “hyper” buildings that have been over-designed, Mouzon helps us see how fascination with the machine became the “expression of our age.” Our obsession with technology still seems to cloud our basic human needs … and still does.

So, as BookExpo America kicks off this week in New York, I am reminded with the first time e-readers hit the trade show and how the IT professionals claimed to know the future of the book was to be purely electronic. For the last decade, many of us questioned the prediction and now, it turns out that the bookstore of the future feels a lot like the comforts of bookstores through time. While things in the back room may operate a little differently, life in the store is still thought-filled, personal, and human scale.

While we’ve all gotten used to finding (and buying) things on the web and reading online, there’s a lingering human need for people, places, and material objects in our lives that are on a tangible, knowable, and comfortable human level.

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!”

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!”