With mega-bookstores struggling for market share these days, independent bookstores have an even tougher time – and we’ve recently lost some of our favorites. Despite competition from chain stores, discounters, and e-tailers, however, some indies have managed to hang on and even thrive.

We asked two staff members at the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse for some inside information on what it takes to run a successful independent bookstore. Catherine Linka is the store’s Children’s Book Buyer. Sandy Willardson is in charge of Marketing, Advertising, and Author-related events.

Catherine Linka is pictured below, left; Sandy Willardson is pictured below, right

What are the rewards and challenges of running an independent bookstore?

Sandy: The rewards: The direction you want to follow isn’t dictated by a corporation. You can become much more ‘intimate’ with your customers – you can anticipate books they might like, events they might enjoy. And, you can take on a much larger role in the community/schools.

The challenges? Getting information out that you exist, without access to the kinds of promotional materials the chain stores have (posters, signage, etc.) You have smaller budgets to work with. You also want to make sure that your books are relevant to the community you serve.

Catherine: The best part of my job is when a parent comes in and says, “My child loved the book you helped us pick out.” Connecting readers with books is a joy.

How do you compete with the behemoths like Amazon and Barnes & Noble? What do you offer readers that the mega-stores can’t?

Sandy: Our strength is in our service …. we call it “hand selling” …. we come out from behind the counter and help you find the book that suits your needs. If we don’t have the book in stock, we make every effort to get it for the customer within one or two days.

Catherine: Independents can’t compete on price. We don’t get the same deals from publishers that the big boys do. I’m not even sure the big boys can compete on price. Borders is a mess right now.

What independents offer is a personal relationship. A living human being will help you navigate, throw out ideas for a gift, connect you to an author you would otherwise never know about. Great independents become part of the community.

This month I took a new author to meet fifth and sixth graders at Crestview Elementary, put on a Mother Daughter Book Party where the partygoers met seven authors, brought a picture book writer to an evening storytime at Paradise Canyon School, brought together book club members to hear about favorite book picks from the sales rep for Norton, led 25 elementary school children in our Junior Advisory Board and 25 teens in our Teen Advisory Board, sold Roald Dahl books at the Willy Wonka fundraiser at La Canada Preparatory, and oversaw the judging of over 200 entries in our Imagination Contest.

Independents also have a point of view. We get to choose books that interest us, not just the books that a central office got a good deal on or ones it thinks will be a blockbuster. We’ll try a couple copies of something new.

What impact on your business do you foresee from e-books?

Sandy: We don’t think that e-books will have a huge impact. The impact will be minimal because (1) people don’t want to stare at a little screen, or for that matter a computer, for long periods of time; and (2) it’s hard to snuggle up by a fire or climb in bed with an e-book. They are just not warm and cozy!

Catherine: E-books are an interesting question. We heard a lot of different opinions about them at the ABA Winter Institute last month. There’s no doubt that e-books will capture a segment of the market, but most likely the segment that consists of people who read 12+ books a year. But even these readers show “hybrid usage” –they read some things on a reader, but others in what they refer to as p-books (printed books).

One thing that publishers acknowledge is that bookstores offer browsing and preview in a way that e-books don’t. People do judge books by their covers and people do respond to the physical qualities of a book. The most interesting research is the stuff that says that we respond differently at a neurological level to reading on a screen–we don’t go as deeply into the dream/trance; instead we skim the way we do as we read text on a computer.

How do you decide what books to carry? Do certain categories sell best? What other criteria do you use? Do local writers ever get special consideration?

Sandy: Catherine has done a fabulous job working with the schools to ensure that we carry the core books that are needed for the La Cañada Unified School District – not an easy task. We have a good give-back program and have already given the LCUSD over $5000.

Naturally, you carry all of the best sellers, you carry books that have been requested by different book groups, you carry all of the classics, you also try to carry books that pertain to your community – not just the histories of your community but also their interests: travel, art, architecture, history, and of course my favorite – cookbooks, etc. Catherine has also put together an incredible children’s and young adult section. The children’s section probably is the biggest earner in the store.

We really enjoy helping local authors …. we’ll carry their books (if they’re good!), host their signings and encourage people to read them.

Catherine: Deciding what books to carry is part science, part art. I look at daily sales reports to see what has and has not sold. Every category is reviewed semiannually to see if it is worth having. It’s always a balancing act, because you need to have a variety of books for all different kinds of readers…not just the top ten best-sellers. Fiction that ranges from romance to mystery to thriller to fine literature is key. New non-fiction, especially memoir or books about human behavior and quirks, do very well. Cookbooks sell all year round.

Local writers get special consideration in that we often plan events to help promote their books if we feel the title will do well in our town. We’re so lucky in having so many amazing writers in L.A.

Are you able to generate revenue beyond book sales – i.e., does the publisher/author typically provide an incentive to carry their books?

Sandy: Publishers will do what is called “co-op” where they will give you a credit if you showcase some of their books – they would like you to high-light them on your website/newsletter, have displays and have their titles “face out” so that they’re more recognizable.

Lots of bookstores make additional money selling what are called “side-lines” – toys, stationery, jewelry, journals, etc. We’re working on that … it takes time to develop the market.

Catherine: Publishers sometimes provide incentives in the form of discounts or co-op money. Bookstores struggle to be profitable, because it is a labor-intensive business and because having all that inventory is expensive. Selling gift items can really benefit the bottom line. No matter how big an independent is, I promise you the store is looking at alternative sources of income, whether it’s operating a coffeebar or offering classes or selling art on consignment.

How did you get in the book business?

Sandy: I’ve been doing events/marketing for the last 20 years. I was in an in-between spot when this opportunity presented itself to help market the store/books/events. It was a natural for me, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of taking an unknown quantity and helping build it into a successful business. For me, I find the mix of interesting authors, fabulous books and planning events a terrific spot to be in!

Catherine: I had a background in marketing, but I’d just finished an MFA in Writing for Children. I was driving down the street and saw the “Help Wanted” sign. I’d never worked in a bookstore, but I must have shown Peter and Lenora [the store’s owners] I knew how to sell, because they hired me to set up the children’s area.

And last, is there anything you wish we’d asked that we didn’t, anything else you’d like readers to know about you and/or Flintridge Books?

Sandy: The big thing on the horizon is the new store, which will have 1000 more square feet and an Espresso Book Machine – that’s big! …. it will print a book of 300 pages in about 4 minutes and put a cover on it! It will be great for print on demand. The future is looking good! [Note: the new store will be constructed right down the block, on the southeast corner of Foothill Blvd. and Angeles Crest Highway]

Catherine: I just want to add that independents are the best friend of a debut author. Independents can choose what they want to carry. We love to discover a new author and give them a chance. Indies have their own bestseller list that differs from the NYTimes and we get an email update weekly. A debut author can get attention from indies when the big boys are obsessed with what’s going to sell 150,000 copies+.

Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse is located at 964 Foothill Blvd. in La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011. Phone: (818) 790-0717

Visit their web site for more information and event schedules.

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