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Sellers in a dangerous time

Given the doldrums of the current bookselling market, Saturday morning’s BEC panel on creative ways to increase bookstore traffic proved timely. The owners of three successful independent bookstores “ Doug Minett of Guelph, Ontario’s the Book Shelf, Joanne Saul from Toronto mini-chain Type Books, and Christopher Smith from Ottawa’s Collected Works “ discussed the ways they have managed to broaden the role of their stores in their communities and increase sales by generating increased traffic.

Minett, whose store has been an innovator in the industry for 35 years, talked about how the Book Shelf has evolved over the years. We opened in an area where there were no big-box stores or shopping malls at the time, he noted. But now we’re in an era of competition. Early on in the store’s development, Minett envisioned the Book Shelf as a hybrid of bookshop and community hub, and the store has grown over the years to include a cinema, bar/café, and small art gallery space. An adjacent restaurant that once brought in $1-million a year in revenue was recently sold off to a private owner, though Minett now expresses some regret about that decision.

Expanding the store to include these other attractions and hosting high-profile events (such as a recent reading with novelist Salman Rushdie at a local church that drew a sold-out crowd of 700) helps draw additional traffic and sets the Book Shelf apart from its competitors, Minett said. Right now, we’re in an industry that is declining¦ Maybe the way to halt the decline is to go back to those very fundamental ideas of excitement and engagement “ not just [focusing on] the blockbuster [titles] or the big technology, he told Q&Q following the talk.

Type Books’ Joanne Saul also stressed the need for adding value to a bookstore, noting that showcasing local artists at Type’s original Queen St. West location has proved popular with both area residents and other visitors dropping by the store. The art installations have also created an opportunity to drum up some press, which is crucial in spreading the word about new independent stores, Saul pointed out. It gives us the chance for a press release and a launch, she said, noting that Type has been featured on local and national radio, television, and newspapers regularly since it opened its first store two years ago. The media coverage has been invaluable “ the onus doesn’t fall on us [to advertise or promote the store]¦ Who’s kidding who? We can’t do it. Do we make money from the gallery? Not much. It’s not a highly profitable venture¦ but it raises our profile in the media and the community.

Originally, at their Queen West location, Type had hoped to run children’s programming, but it didn’t seem to fit well with the neighbourhood, Saul said. Instead, Type will now carry that idea over to their new location on the Danforth (an extremely family-friendly neighbourhood).

Christopher Smith of Ottawa’s Collected Works discussed his store’s two key innovations “ a move toward virtual author appearances and the creation of a coffee bar. He noted that it’s an increasing challenge for smaller independent stores to score high-profile author appearances, given that the big chains or literary festivals often scoop up the big names “ and even then, many publishers are cutting back on author tours these days. So Collected Works decided if they couldn’t bring the authors to them, they’d bring the authors to their customers, via online technology.

Using the free video-conferencing software Skype, the bookstore held two events with Random House authors Julian Barnes and Peter Carey where the writers appeared via webcam from their respective homes in London and New York and were projected onto a screen in the store. Customers who purchased the authors’ new books at the events received copies with customized signed bookplates. While the turnout, about 50 people for each event, was on the disappointing side, the events did attract a noticeably younger crowd than the usual middle-aged customers who normally attend readings, Smith pointed out.

You tell an author, ˜You can appear in a bookstore, and you don’t have to travel to go there,’ and they’re all for it, Smith said. Except for them being physically present, it’s exactly like any other event. And it’s pretty low-tech “ no Margaret Atwood LongPen. Someone who’s about eight years old could set up the technology. Aside from a computer, all a bookstore needs to set up such an event is a webcam, projector, and screen “ an investment of about $500, Smith said.

Far more expensive is adding a coffee bar to a small bookstore, which only works if there’s no competition in the vicinity, Smith said. If you have a Starbucks around the corner, it’s probably not such a great idea. Set-up costs can be high “ automated espresso machines cost in the range of $20,000 “ so bookstore owners have to consider whether a coffee bar or similar café is going to add to their bottom line. Smith noted that the enterprise is working well for Collected Works, bringing in 13% of the store’s gross revenue annually.

It’s a way to engage regular customers, Smith said. You’re like a barman, in some ways. And in our area, that’s made for an amazing sense of community¦ How often are you going to have customers coming in two, three times a day? We turn these coffee drinkers into book buyers.

As bookselling becomes an increasingly difficult venture, finding new ways to survive becomes imperative, all three booksellers told the seminar’s packed crowd of booksellers and publishers.

[When we started], we hoped that we could just sell books and be a happy camper, the Book Shelf’s Minett said, laughing. But these days, we have to not only keep traffic building or try to simply maintain it, but also try to fend off competition from all sorts of digital media. So independents are probably going to have try some unique things that haven’t been done before.