Last Saturday, a young 20-something came into the shop looking for a particular title. The book was one I wasn't familiar with, one we wouldn't typically carry on our shelves, and sure enough, a quick search informed me we didn't have it in stock. As usual, I offered the customer the option to special order, which with us takes about two to three days (depending on the snow our northern distributors are experiencing). It's a turnaround that's fairly quick -- Barnes and Noble normally takes about a week -- and our prices are comparable to the bigger chain stores, though not, of course, to... well, you know.
"No, thanks," the customer said. "I'll just find it online for cheaper, probably from Amazon or something."
The story Nora Ephron told in You've Got Mail is true, only now, the Fox Books of the world no longer exist. The independent bookstores are thriving, but our competition isn't Barnes and Noble or Books A Million, not really, not anymore. Our competition is this online business we don't know too much about, a business we can't research or challenge.
I try not to judge Amazon shoppers. The truth is, though, that Amazon hurts the business I chose to buy and run. And there is perhaps nothing quite as hurtful as a customer telling you -- to your face -- that they'd rather shop quickly and easily and cheaply than enjoy the overall experience of the store you have curated and loved.
It's not personal, it's business. So says Joe Fox, and honestly? I agree. I don't take those customers' comments personally. But I do wonder if they know what they're saying. If you need a book more quickly and less expensively than I can get it to you, I understand. But you do have choice. We don't have to have our packages delivered by drones on a Sunday morning. We could wait and shop with the people who live and work in our communities. We could support the people we call our neighbors. We could choose to exercise our patience and order from businesses we know and trust because ultimately, it's better for our neighborhoods and better for us.
The Bookshelf has been a part of my life for nearly three years now. I've spent the last one and a half years in Thomasville, working alongside people I now call my friends and neighbors. And maybe it's a small town thing, but most of our customers understand the "shop local" movement. They understand why it's better to support a locally-owned business than it is to support a franchise or an online shop. They frequently choose our store over a cheaper option, and I'm grateful for it.
But there are still folks who don't understand why our books are more expensive or why the collection we offer doesn't compare to the one they can find at Barnes and Noble.
Allow me to explain. Let me offer just a few ways you can make your local shopping experience even better.
- Let us help you. Our selection is never going to compare to a larger chain store. The books we stock are chosen entirely by me and Rebekah and Sidney. We order books based on our personal tastes, national bestseller lists, fellow independent bookstore owners and leaders, and customer recommendations. Our shelves are highly curated; what you find here, you won't necessarily find anywhere else. It's why I love shopping independently when I travel; I always find something new I wouldn't find in my own town. When you shop at a local, independently-run bookstore, do the staff favor: Don't limit yourself to that one book you're just dying to read. The fact is, we might not have it. The title you're looking for may be obscure or out-of-date or just not on that particular shop's shelves. Ask us for it, by all means! But if we don't have it, consider ordering it from us. (We love that!) Better yet, ask us for a comparable title. We can probably help you find something similar we think you might love. We are great at personal recommendations. It's what sets us apart, and it's why we're still in business.
- Feign interest. Locally-owned shops are frequented by all kinds of folks. We love the wanderers, the ones who poke their heads in the door just to see what we're about. We find it hard to believe, but we know: Not everyone's a book lover. That's fine. But do us a favor, and if you're poking around, or if you're entering the premises with the sole purpose of finding a clean restroom, please do us a favor, and look around. Explore the shop. Make an effort to at least feign interest. You never know what treasures you might find. More and more bookstores -- including us -- are offering a wider selection of gift product. Those products help us stay in business, so we love for you to buy those, too. If you're not a book lover, the book buying experience can still be for you.
- Shop smart. The books you find in any indie store are going to be more expensive than the very same titles at Target or Sam's or Amazon. Those big box stores have worked out deals -- some fair, some not-so-fair -- with publishing companies, and by buying and stocking in bulk, they receive better discounts than we do. It's a part of the business I'm still coming to terms with, but please know: The prices on the back of the book are the prices we have to charge, both to run our business and to maintain relationships with our publishers. For reference, adult paperback books typically run anywhere between $15 and $18; hardbacks are more expensive and run from $22 to $28, depending on their size. Those prices have been set by publishing companies, and they ensure authors and sales reps and printers and marketing personnel get paid fairly. There's not much I can do about the prices of the books we sell. Please shop knowing those prices are entirely comparable to the books you'll find at Barnes and Noble or Books a Million, but they're never going to be comparable to what you can find on Amazon. Please don't be surprised when we tell you the price of a book, and above all, refrain from telling us where you can find it for less. Trust us; we already know.
- Take pictures. I love when customers pull out their phones to snap pictures of the store. Our staff works diligently to ensure we've created a colorful, lively atmosphere in our shop, and customers photographing those details makes me one happy girl. The customers who go above and beyond, though, ask our permission. It's such a small gesture, but it's kind, and it shows they understand what we're up against. Take pictures of our displays. Share them on social media. Be a voice for us! Advertising is expensive, and it's far more effective for you to tell your friends where we are and how they can support us. Word of mouth is our best friend, and a lot of it now happens online.
- Talk to us. The only way we can beat Amazon is by offering what they can't: Customer service and a place to hang out. We are desperate to become your community gathering place. It's why our store has an event at least once a week. It's why we read stories to your kids and invite local authors and give you stamps when you need to mail a letter. We want you to spend your time with us; local businesses are dying to be your Cheers. I love customers who come in and want to chat about the book they just read. I want to know what they thought and if they told their book club about it and how many copies I should order for their friends. I want to tell you what I just finished reading, and I want us to be respectful of each other's tastes. I want our bookstore to be a safe place for you to gather to think and debate and visit and read. I am trying to learn your name, and I'd love for you to learn mine. Grab a book off of a staff recommendation shelf and tell me if you loved it too. These are the things Amazon can't take from us -- they're trying, with Good Reads, and I understand why people love it. But nothing beats interacting with an actual human being. It's messy and it's funny and it's where good stories come from.
Attend events. Follow small businesses on social media. Spread the word. Put your money where your mouth is. We're all on a budget, and the Internet has spoiled us: We want it cheap, and we want it now. Shopping locally reminds us there's a better way, a way you can spend money right in the heart of your community and see it reap the rewards. Small businesses employ your neighbors and offer gathering places; their store selections are probably hand chosen with your community in mind. I can't tell you how many books I stock not because I love them, but because I know Thomasville will love them. I choose books and gifts I believe my community will love.
I shop with them in mind, and in turn, I hope they do the same for me.