That's the question we asked last week. Aaron Curtis, Quartermaster of the buying office at Books & Books, Miami, Fla., observes that owner Mitchell Kaplan "has always been a 'business is booming' kind of guy. The trick for us in the buying office has been to educate customers without sounding desperate. So often, businesses and schools approach me saying they want to support our local business, not realizing that support means money. After providing specifics on discount and pricing of the title(s) the customer wants, here's the 'speech' I use":
We will never be able to compete with Amazon (or perhaps I should say, very rarely) when it comes to pricing. Huge companies like Amazon can offer deeper discounts because their buying power enables them to leverage better discounts from the publishers. Also, their overhead is significantly lower than ours. Our community profile says high end, but we are David in a sea of Goliaths.
On the plus side, the lion's share of Books & Books sales revenue goes back into the local economy, not to corporate headquarters or distant suppliers. We help make Miami a unique place, rather than a chain bookstore that can be found in any city in America, or an internet retailer 3,400 miles away. We live here, we work here, and your purchase will help keep us here. As long as the community thinks of us, we can continue to employ locally, as well as donate time, money, and books to local charities, hospitals, hospices, and low-income schools . . . and schedule great authors, of course. Let me know when you're ready to order the books.
Curtis adds that he empathizes with Fred Powell's story about explaining how the industry works to his book group. "I had a similar experience," he says. "One of our members belongs to another book group that has been meeting at Books & Books for 14 years. I was very frank with our group. I explained how consignment and returns frustrated our ability to keep titles in stock, and how publishers have become very unforgiving lately. She took this back to her other group, and sales from them have increased dramatically, both in the store and through our website."
Ultimately, Curtis believes, "Now is not the time for a stiff upper lip. Now is the time to let our loyal customers know we are suffering with them, and how much we appreciate their business."
So, what do our customers really know and when did they know it? That's a good question, too. Another bookseller e-mailed me the following message--received from a customer who travels to his area frequently enough to care about his bookshop--suggesting this might be "a representative 21st century customer":
"I admit it. I love bookstores," the note begins, "love the cafe atmosphere, too. Especially love independent stores where there are lists and signs telling me what the staff recommends. I could live in a bookstore. I read a lot--used to buy books a lot too. Now here's the real painful admission. I bought a Kindle. I love my Kindle--it's perfect for those books I just don't want to own forever. The ones I'd read and just give away anyway. Do I feel guilty? Hell yes. So guilty that I buy all my daughter's birthday party presents at my independent store now; I make sure I never purchase a knitting book or cookbook from Amazon. You can't buy those on a Kindle--they don't make sense. I'm guilty though because I've stopped buying fiction. And I was a big time fiction buyer before--sometimes 5-6 books a week."
She goes on to say that she does still buy some fiction because of staff recommendations or author events, but adds, "I don't know what this says other than bookstores that aren't also 'destinations' are not going to make it. What makes me go to my indie bookstore now? Coffee and lunch with friends, author events, toys for parties and when I have a must-have knitting or cookbook. Though I have to tell you in these tough times it's very hard not to purchase those on Amazon, too, since I have an Amazon Visa and get $25 gift certificates every few months as a perk. I try to save those for groceries or clothes though. So you see I mean well, but the Kindle is just so damn good."
She knows the challenges indies face, as well as the benefits we offer, and yet . . .
What do we tell her? What should we ask her?