Saturday, December 29, 2007

This is probably going to sound strange, coming from me, but the mass market isn't all bad. It has created opportunities for a few of us stores who are trying to adjust to new realities.

From Slate online:

Don't Fear Starbucks
Why the franchise actually helps mom and pop coffeehouses.

By Taylor Clark
Posted Friday, Dec. 28, 2007, at 7:35 AM ET

"How could momma and poppa coffee hope to survive? But Hyman didn't misspeak—and neither did the dozens of other coffeehouse owners I've interviewed. Strange as it sounds, the best way to boost sales at your independently owned coffeehouse may just be to have Starbucks move in next-door."

I'm pretty sure much the same thing has happened to the bookstore that Linda and I own, The Bookmark. I don't believe the mass market has hurt us. Indeed, I think our store runs on the fuel that Costgo, Walmart and Barnes and Noble produces.

We don't have to go out and find books, searching for the rare and unusual. (Like we would've 20 or even 10 years ago.) We just wait for them to come to us. Because readers read everything, we need to be open to everything. They bring in loads of Costgo and B & Noble books, and other more unusual books come in along with them.

I see us as taking some of the overflow of these massive operations, collecting them in a congenial atmosphere, at a competitive price (used v.s. new) mixing them with older and more unusual selections.

But I think that we are just another rung in the ladder. We are a reflection of what is selling on the mass market level.

The reason that used bookstores are having such trouble is that they haven't adjusted to the sheer volume of books that are coming down, haven't adjusted the way they trade and sell, haven't been open to the extras or duplicates, and so on. They still think books are a rare item, and are being buried on one side by the Internet, which does the rare and unusual better, and on the other side by the mass market, which does the best sellers better.

But instead of fighting it, make use of it! Take those best-sellers from six months ago, which still have a buzz about them, and put them where people can find them. Take those multiple copies of the new best-seller and cluster them with previous novels by the same author. That kind of thing.

Don't fight it.

But I usually get a really blank look from other used bookstore owners when I talk this way. They are operating from a model that has existed for centuries for hardcover and decades for paperback, but which is now, except for rare exceptions, completely outmoded. They are fighting a losing battle. It hard for them to see past what they've always done. And most people opening bookstores today are simply following the old model, as well.

There are things we do, that I'm so sure work, but I'm going to keep that knowledge to myself. Because, I'm convinced that this is a new way. I'm normally very open, but what makes this system work is both in the overall concept, but especially, the difference is in the details.

Linda and I had a unique amount of parallel retail experience to bring to first time used bookstore owners. We spent a lot of time examining and thinking about it in advance. And we got lucky in that the model we came up with fit very well with the new realities, with a few quick adjustments.

But it really makes me wonder how many other businesses need exactly the same kind of rethinking, including mine. I haven't come up with anything dramatic in my business, maybe because I'm constantly tinkering already. But I've been known to make big changes that turn out to be the same kind of changes that other stores end up making.

I have some ideas about how I would do a new bookstore, too. Because I think they need a complete re-examination.

Problem is, the very image of bookstores might also be the root of their problems. Bookstores have an image that is very, very attractive. Most people opening bookstores want to do them pretty much like the bookstores they like, or the one they have always imagined. When, in fact, the model might just be out of date.

If or when I get serious about doing a new bookstore type model, I would put it through the same process I put the used bookstore through. Because doing it the same old way; or conversely, trying too hard to compete head on with the new ways (eBay, Amazon, etc.) or against Barnes and Noble and Borders, I think is a doomed effort for all but a few exceptional stores.

I have too much energy, sometimes. I want to try new things in business. I want to experiment. It must drive my wife crazy. I don't think I'm overly ambitious, I don't think I'm a workaholic. I just like to see if my ideas work. Most of the time, I come to my senses and just explore the ideas without jumping off the cliff.

But, if there was no risk, and I didn't have to work 80 hours a week, and there was no stress, it would be fun to try. Of course, everyone else would too.

ONE STRONG CAVEAT: It very possible I'm mistaking our success with luck and opportunity. Certainly, the location was super important, and the fact that another used bookstore was just leaving. I've mistaken circumstance for skill before......

1 comment:

Duncan McGeary said...

The funny thing is, my position on the mass market dominance is almost exactly different than everyone else.

Most think the mass market is harmful to independent stores, but beneficial to the overall marketplace. (keeps prices down.)

Whereas I think the mass market is toxic to the overall marketplace, (creates a atmosphere of overconsumerism) but creates opportunities for the independent stores.

That is, I STILL don't like Wal-Mart, even though their ugly nature presents opportunities.