"Some people are natural door openers. But most are not," wrote William H. Whyte in City: Rediscovering the Center. For Connie Brooks, owner of Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y., both kinds of people--and lots of them--must open the shop's front door to sustain her business. She knows she can't just wait for that to happen.
The entrance to a 21st-century indie bookstore has become a swinging door, with booksellers searching for ways to build community outside as well as inside their shops. For Connie, one of the most successful ventures thus far has been her collaboration with the Curiosity Forum, a joint venture with Hubbard Hall and Open Studios of Washington County that hosts a wide-ranging series of events, including lectures, slide presentations, documentary film screenings, author events, demonstrations/workshops and interactive artist events.
"The Curiosity Forum was started by local artist Leslie Parke, who is also the driving force behind the Open Studios of Washington County organization/event," said Connie. "She'd had a residency at Giverny, and when she returned to Cambridge she was asked to speak about her experiences, and so the first Curiosity Forum was born. Right when I took over Battenkill Books, she was looking to reinvigorate the series, and I was gung-ho to start planning author events. We also partner with Hubbard Hall, a local nonprofit arts organization, that allows us to promote the events to their membership, as well as to the bookstore’s growing e-mail database."
For Leslie, the partnership has been a logical and necessary evolution in a region that has numerous individuals and organizations--both for-profit and nonprofit--looking to draw interest from a limited audience pool. "As we go forward with a new paradigm, we cannot be competitors. We can only cooperate with each other," said Leslie, who meets regularly with Connie and Hubbard Hall's Gina Deibel and Deb Foster to consider programming suggestions. "We're really just the gatekeepers for the quality of the projects," Leslie added. "We're really trying to brand the area" so people see Cambridge as a destination for high quality events appealing to a variety of interests.
"I really can't say enough good about the partnership," Connie observed. "It is a tremendous amount of work to plan events, and with this approach it is a team effort. Hubbard Hall, for example, handles the press, since they are already set up for it and have the contacts. I am constantly meeting new authors, so I bring that to the table. The impact on the community is hard to measure, but we are averaging 30-45 attendees at each event, which for a small community is really great. And we’ve heard anecdotally that especially in this down economy people really appreciate that most of our events are free, which is drawing some folks out to events who would otherwise be quite isolated. We’re scheduling events into 2011, so I take that as a measure of success."
The community's influence upon the inside of the store is evident as well. Battenkill Books features a comprehensive local and regional book inventory, prominently displayed up front, and "We’re developing a real niche of books on what I call 'homesteading,' i.e., books on everything from building a root cellar to raising chickens to maple sugaring," said Connie. "We are absolutely passionate about the books we choose for the shop. We are a small indie (one full time, three part-time staff), but I like to tell customers, 'We don’t have less of everything, we have the best of everything.' You can come in to our store, and I think this is increasingly a relief for people, not be overwhelmed by choice. We may have a small crafts section, for example, but it is an outstanding one."
While Connie has already established a strong community base, the learning curve for any new indie bookseller is sharp and unforgiving. "We know we have a tough path ahead of us to make this work," she said.
After last week's column, I was asked what sort of formal--or informal--retail bookstore training Connie and Chris Brooks had before embarking on their venture, and what made them think they could be successful.
It's a great question. I posed it to Connie. Her response was detailed and intriguing. I'll share it with you next week, and perhaps it will open up a general discussion about how booksellers currently entering the business prepare to take that indie leap.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1255