INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES: THE INSIDE STORY — MECHANICSBURG, PA
Meet Debbie Beamer of the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop.
BACKGROUND: The store, established in 1990, sells only crime stories — mysteries, espionage, thrillers, and so on, both new and used, and related other items, such as gifts. They will also do special orders for any book. Their customer base is all ages, in a diverse community, but with the majority being women in the later-40s-early 50s age range. They would like to attract more children.
RETAIL: Debbie agreed that the retail book business is settling down after a long, difficult period, but also adds that her area is often about five years behind the trends. Her business, overall, never slumped as badly as it did elsewhere. What she has noticed lately is that she is selling more used books.
CHOOSING STOCK: Press releases that emphasize a good background story are helpful. She pays attention to customer requests and staff recommendations.
WHAT IS POPULAR: Her customers have very eclectic interests and are open to new books with hand selling. The interests of her discussions groups cover the mystery genre gamut. A staff recommendation all it takes for her customers to try someone new.
CONTACTING HER: Use email. Or, if you want to send an ARC, include a note. ARC’s alone do not get her attention, though she uses them for new ideas and as gifts, at conferences and so on.
EVENTS: This seems to be a specialty of the store. She tries to use her imagination and often partners with other businesses, such as a local coffee shop with an appearance by Cleo Coyle, author of the Coffeehouse Mystery series. The store sponsors a mystery conference, Murder As You Like It, in September, and they have a full schedule of non-mystery, book-related events.
If they expect a large crowd, they will look for a larger space, such as the library.
She would certainly consider any idea from an author, and says, “Think about how to make it into event! Is there a way to include an inn, ice cream, wine tasting?”
An idea for a ready-made panel would certainly be considered. She hosted one of Canadian authors who were nearby after attending Malice.
The initial contact can come from the authors or from her. She prefers that the author do it by direct contact, though, not through the publishers. Other authors recommendations are welcome, and as everywhere else, (except maybe New York City) local authors are popular.
She does believe events are helpful for selling new books, and also that they bring new customers in to the store.
WHAT WOULD SHE LIKE FROM MWA? She is frustrated that she cannot get through to some writers directly but must go through a PR person.
Watch this space for another indie boookstore profile next week.
INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES: THE INSIDE STORY — FLEMINGTON, N.J.
Meet Marilyn Thiele of Moonstone Mystery Book Store.
BACKGROUND: In 1999, Marilyn bought, and still owns, a used book business called Twice Told Tales. When the adjoining store closed, she took over the space and opened Moonstone, fulfilling a longtime dream of owning a mystery bookstore. The nearby presence of a Borders was a concern, but she took what she calls “a leap of faith . . . [she] believed that, with Borders' limited inventory in crime fiction and [putting] an emphasis on local authors, foreign, and classic mysteries,” she could fill a niche.
BOOK RETAILING: Though she had a specific boost from the closing of Borders, she believes there is general growth in the independent bookstore business. “Readers have become disenchanted with electronic formats," she says. (Take note. Not the only time I heard this.) “Shoppers say they want to actually browse real books.” She is optimistic that e-readers and online shopping will settle into their place in the market, but "that the live experience is returning.”
She also said customer service is the key to survival. Her customers want recommendations and are happy to get books the next day, "as good at the big A," and she learns what’s in demand by paying attention to special requests. Making helpful recommendations to customers depends on having a knowledgeable staff and listening to what customers say they like.
MYSTERIES: Between the two separate-but-connected shops, mysteries are at least 50% of her business, and her favorite. (Love to hear this!)
Selecting mysteries is a many-faceted process. First, what customers request. Then her own choices, using reviews from sources she respects. “The advantage to being an independent shop is being the buyer, not having inventory chosen by a corporate plan," she says. Since customers like recommendations of something new, she tries to find the “good stuff” that is not well known. When it comes to getting someone to try a new author, “Credibility is the stock in trade of the bookseller.”
Cozies remain popular, as do Scandinavian and British authors. French and Italian authors have recently picked up steam. New Jersey authors are always an easy sell. On the other hand, William Kent Kreuger and C.J.Box, with settings so different from New Jersey, are also popular. “Perhaps that is part of the appeal," says Marilyn.
A delightful note: the store has a mystery-reading club and they are all going to Bouchercon!
CONTACTING THE STORE: Marilyn gets so much mail, authors need to do something to make it personal: send a handwritten note with the mailing, or you send a message to the store's Facebook page.
LIVE EVENTS: As Flemington is off the beaten path, an author's willingness to travel there is the first requirement. Then Marilyn looks for a hook to attract an audience. How to make a good impression on her? Be an author who helps with p.r. and who relates to well to the audience.
She prefers direct contact from authors, by personal visit, e-mail, or phone.
The real value of events is that they: 1. call attention to the store, and 2. give readers a personal connection to the author, creating excitement for the next books.
She always has refreshments (I’ve heard enthusiasm about her hospitality!) and believes it encourages author/reader socializing.
HOW CAN MWA/INDIVIDUAL MYSTERY WRITERS BE HELPFUL: Tell her if you are willing to come to her stores; don’t make her ask. Beyond that, more help in wading through the hype. Give her a good, honest idea of how your book fits in, what it is like. (A theme here. Last week’s interviewee said the same thing.) Jacket copy is sometimes misleading. (Something to keep in mind if you are the rare author who controls that.)
Watch this space for two more interviews, and a summing up of lessons learned.
Independent Bookstores: The Inside Story—Ithaca
Last week I provided some background to this project of learning more about the independent bookstores in our very diverse MWA-NY region. Here is the first of a series of interviews. Meet Asha Sanaker of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is a small, lively town in the Finger Lakes region and is home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College.
BACKGROUND: The store is about 1,600 square feet with 2/3 inventory and an event space. Asha explains that the store had been there since the 1990’s, and had been quite successful but was hit hard by the chains. When it was dying, the community rallied, and as a result in 2010 it became a co-op. They are still finding their way, revamping how they do business. They have book groups, writing seminars, a program to work with colleges for course books, and lively Facebook and web pages. “It is a work in progress,” says Asha.
Their customers come from Ithaca’s large academic population, but not the students. As they improve social media, they see younger traffic, and creating a good children’s section has brought in lots of families. Their customers like general interest books, new books, and books by local authors.
HOW DO MYSTERIES FIT IN: They are quite popular and do well, 10% of sales. An experiment in expanding the mystery shelf space did not increase sales. They would like to get paperback editions more quickly and must be strategic about stocking hard cover mysteries.
What’s selling? Cozies are not so popular but Nordic writers, women, less big names, and the more alternative writers are. There are 10-15 local mystery writers and they are popular. "But Alexander McCall-Smith continues to sell!"
(Interest in local authors might be an opening also for authors who are not local but write about upstate New York.)
Trying new authors? Careful displays and good covers turned out do make a difference, just as most authors have always suspected. The store likes to introduce new authors, and it will take self-published books on consignment, though it is up to the author to promote them.
Events are flexible. E-mail their events co-coordinator or stop in if you are local. Provide a synopsis, ARC, distributor information. Asha notes that the distributor information is very important. The most successful events are with authors who understand that they must be entertaining. The events that turn out best are the ones where authors take PR responsibility. She also notes that it is important not to plan a competing event at one of the colleges.
HOW CAN MWA/INDIVIDUAL MYSTERY WRITERS BE HELPFUL? Asha says that while big names don't need help to be recognized, less well-known authors need to tell her where they belong. Who are they like? What sub-genre? She suggests MWA could help by providing members with some professional development on how to do it all better: social media, how to become better known in new areas, how to rally readers when they travel to new places. Perhaps how to be more entertaining at a book event?
Watch this space for more bookstore interviews next Monday and over the next few weeks.
Independent Bookstores: The Inside Story, Part 1
It’s not news that the bookstore business has been in turmoil for a decade or two. Everyone in the book business, in any capacity, knows that. Independent bookstores were slammed by the chains.
- 1. The chains were damaged by Amazon.
- 2. They are all damaged by e-books.
- 3. Mystery bookstores are closing all over the country.
- 4. While it did get significantly much tougher, the truth is that it’s always been a thin margin, tenuous business, and owners had to be smart, hard-working, nimble, AND lucky to make it work. And sadly even all that was not always enough.
As writers, and of course as readers too, this has to matter to all of us.
Lately there has been some evidence, or maybe just rumors, that it may be looking up at last. Here is good news from ABA. Some selected news banners:
▪ Independent Booksellers Continue to Add New Stores
▪The Rise of the Independent Bookstore
▪ Independent Bookstores Are on the Rise despite Digital Competition
I had the opportunity to talk to Otto Penzler and Ian Kern of the great Mysterious Bookshop, and it led me to wonder about the other independent bookstores in our far-flung MWA/NY region. Do most of us even know about the bookstores outside of our immediate turf, let alone how they are doing? I have a background in business research; I thought I’d do a small-scale study. Maybe our chapter membership would find it useful.
With the help of the always helpful and awesomely experienced book traveler, Jenny Milchman, I made a list of many booksellers throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. The plan was to interview them by phone or e-mail, their choice, and compare the findings.
I was not entirely surprised when the New York City stores never even responded to my query. The truth is that, in New York, there is a writer on every street corner, and unless you are either 1. a very big name or 2. you fit into their self-defined market plan, they do not seem very interested. Parsing what this means for MWA members is a subject for another time.
And I was thrilled that most of the contacted stores not in New York City said, “Sure. Let’s do it by e-mail.” Great. I love e-mail. In the end, most of them did not follow through, in spite of a few reminders. At a certain point I know it’s time to stop being a pest. (And if any of you bookstore owners happen to read this, and would still like to participate, I’d love to hear from you!) I don’t think this means anything except that they are busy and understaffed.
However, four very kind and well-informed bookstore owners said they’d happy to talk, and so we did. It was great. Thank you to Ashok Sanaker of Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca, NY; Marilyn Thiele, of Moonstone Mystery Bookstore in Flemington, NJ; Debbie Beamer, of Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, and Glenda Childs of Doylestown Bookshop, both in PA. I hope to say thank you –and shop a lot – in person someday.
Do you want to know who shops there? How they’d like to be contacted by mystery authors? What makes a good event? How they’ve managed to stay in business? Would you just like the names of more bookstores? All that and more will be revealed. Watch this space for the details over the next two Mondays.