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Talking Bookstore 'Brand' at Wi12 

We are word people, but "brand" is one of those terms that sometimes lurks just beyond our comfort zone. Kind of a close cousin to calling a bookseller a "salesperson." Both words are pertinent, but... do we really have to say them out loud?

Yes, we do.

The Wi12 education session "Creating and Managing Your Store Brand" featured John Evans of DIESEL, A Bookstore, with locations in Oakland, Brentwood & Larkspur, Calif.; Kevin Quinn, chief strategist for the consulting firm STYLED RETAIL; and Nicole Sullivan of the BookBar in Denver, Colo.

To begin, Evans shared a brief introduction he'd written to place branding "in a bookstore context because historically bookstores, especially some of the older stores, have a little bit of a conflicted idea about the very idea of branding."

John Evans

He observed that when he walks "into Three Lives in New York or Watermark Books in Wichita, Kans., or City Lights in San Francisco I have three different experiences. They're particular, specific and expressive of the personalities of the people who work there and their philosophies, policies, procedures, labor practices, visions and display & design choices. This is in addition to what we tend to focus on--selection of books, curation.... This session is taking a more conscious look at the ways in which we, consciously or unconsciously, body forth our values, ideas, visions and personalities in our stores as an entity called the bookstore, as a culture of booksellers, and as a business. This can also be called how we brand ourselves."

Kevin Quinn

Quinn offered a succinct definition of terms: "Your brand name is your objective, fixed source of the products and services, but your brand is what exists in someone's mind. It's their perception of your products and services. Brand name is very objective, brand is quite subjective.... The term branding is a marketing strategy for how you execute your brand."

At STYLED RETAIL, the focus with clients is on "the values of why you started your business to begin with, and what truly matters to you and what does the business stand for," he said. "And we believe strongly that that is where store brand is derived.... Everything starts with your values and through that your store culture can be developed. It's in that culture that the customer derives their perception of your business."

Quinn also stressed that booksellers "have to have a conversation with their customers, not just talking at them and sending messages at them, but actually engaging them in a conversation and asking for feedback and getting that feedback in multiple ways."

Nicole Sullivan

Sullivan agreed, advising booksellers to consider how branding affects all areas of their business, including inventory, events, community outreach, social media strategy, logo, color palette, décor, layout and more. "Map out a plan, keeping in mind things like your values; thinking about what you want your interior and exterior to look like according to those values and what you want to communicate," she said, adding: "It's important to bring everything together as much as possible when you're thinking about your brand from a very concrete point of view....

"People can come into your store or go to your website, and some people will just consciously get it and say wow, this is all well thought out and tied in nicely. But most people get that on a very subconscious level. And when that happens, they feel more comfortable.... We want people to come into our space and just feel comfortable on a conscious level and also on a subconscious level. I think that is one of the most important things that branding can do for you."

She also encouraged booksellers to trademark their logo and name because "we spend a lot of money on businesses, so it's good to be able to protect your investment."

Quinn offered five tips he'd garnered from 20-plus years of retail experience:

  1. Value: "Add value and know what your values are."
  2. Personalize it: "Make your brand a necessity for how your customer wants to live their life."
  3. Engage: "Different messages in different mediums."
  4. Relationships: "Retail is about localization today.... Have a relationship with your customer and ask questions."
  5. Adapt: "Retail is moving so quickly and changing so rapidly.... When you know what your brand is and convey that to your customer, they'll speak with their pocketbook."

Branding, for Evans, includes "having an incredibly diverse selection of books for what is basically a neighborhood bookstore.... and to be very playful in the way that we do displays and the way we interact with customers. The interactions we have are incredibly personal and direct, so people feel absolutely welcomed." He stressed "being responsive, being inspirational, being engaged, community radiating, and also to have a certain kind of authority. Our selection is communicating to anybody who likes to read that they can talk to anybody that's in the store about pretty much anything. It's not that we know everything, but that we're accessible and experienced and interested and engaged with it all."

Evans concluded the panel with words that reflected the spirit, perhaps even the brand, of Wi12: "The last thing I'd like to say is just that, obviously, the answers to all of the questions that haven't been asked yet, or that you may have in your mind, can also be answered by all of the people that are around you who've been creatively answering these questions for sometimes decades. So talk to each other. That's what this whole Winter Institute is about."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2940


Valentine's Day Bookshop Sampler

My favorite headline for the 2017 edition of Bookshop Valentine's Day: "Kim Kardashian skips Super Bowl fun to shop for 'Valentine's Day books for Northie' in deserted store." Actually, my real favorite is not bookish at all: "Love is in the air at the Valentine's Day Digester Egg Tour at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant."

Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colorado, displays VD merchandise.

Am I a cynic? Maybe, just a little, though I'm also fascinated by the varieties of Valentine's Day experience that indie booksellers take advantage of during what is actually the cruelest month (apologies to T.S. Eliot). Merchandising cards, gifts, candy, "blind dates with books," rugs and more keeps the registers ringing for a "holiday" that, as the American Independent Business Alliance noted, "is a big deal for many indie businesses.... Go Local for Valentine's Day! About 60% of people in North America make Valentine's Day purchases each year, totaling about $20 billion."

There's also a political edge to Valentine's Day 2017 in the book world, including the Leaders Are Readers project: "This Valentine's Day, share our love of literature and hopes for a better world by burying the Oval Office in a mountain of great books. In the process, we'll support local bookstores and the publishing industry."

Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., invited people to stop by its Prince Ave. store "during the next week to decorate Valentines for refugees! You write it, we'll mail it to Jubilee Partners, a group in Comer, Ga., that has provided over 3,000 refugees from war-torn countries a safe place to learn English and adjust to their new home. #refugeesarewelcome #allarewelcome #jubileepartners #avidloves #valentines #avidactivism #avidonprince #avidgivesback #refugeeswelcome".

In a letter e-mailed to customers yesterday, Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, observed: "As Valentine's Day approaches, our bookstores are more determined than ever to show support and love for everyone in our community, no matter their opinions, background, race or national origin. In this spirit, we will be donating 20% of all sales this weekend to the ACLU of Connecticut and Rhode Island, WARM Center of Westerly, and the New London Homeless Hospitality Center. We believe that this support will show our love for our country and its freedoms."

At Malaprop's Bookstore/Café, Asheville, N.C., where "book valentines are now taking over our computers," a sidewalk sandwich board asked: "Need something for a love? Feeling frustrated with the Gov.?"

Good stuff. And here's a sampler of what some other indie bookstores are up to this Valentine's Day:

"Did someone say open bar?" asked WORD Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y. "Come out to Villain for our second annual Galentine's Day Romance Bash featuring raffle giveaways, drinking games, hilarious conversation, and more with authors Sarah Maclean, Maya Rodale, Suleikha Snyder, and Damon Suede. This panel will be moderated by WORD's Romance Book Group leader Madeline Caldwell. It's going to be a PARTY."

McLean & Eakin Bookstore, Petoskey, Mich., noted: "Let's face it, Valentine's Day is not for everyone.... It is, after all, an arbitrary day that is supposed to be fun. If it's not fun for you, forget about it! Lots of other historical things happened on February 14th. The state of Oregon became the 33rd state, the first personal computer was revealed, and the first GPS went into orbit. All of those have a lot more impact on your life today than whether or not you celebrate Valentine's Day this year. Here are some traditional, and not-so-traditional Valentine's picks for you to peruse."

For the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo., "every day is a love affair with authors and stories of every genre, and in honor of that, we are dedicating the month of February to the authors we love. Throughout the month we will be sharing letters written by our staff and booksellers to express their respect, adoration and affection for the writers who have lifted them up, inspired them, and propelled them down the path to becoming the wonderful and passionate bibliophiles they are today."

"With Valentine's Day coming up, we thought it might be an appropriate time of year to share some of our staff members' favorite love stories," Brilliant Books, Traverse City, Mich., observed. "Of course, we've got a very eclectic group of readers on staff, so their selections are just as unique. From adorable and charming to heartbreakingly beautiful, these love stories span the full spectrum of relationships. What better gift for your special someone this February 14th?"

Speaking of staff picks, New Zealand's Wardini Books, Havelock North, asked: "How about this for Valentine's Day guys and gals? You can't really go past Amy's succinct description!" And another Kiwi shop, Time Out Bookstore in Auckland, offered an alternative strategy with a balloon that says: "Screw Valentine's Day. Go to bed with a good book."

Ultimately, however, I think Greenlight Bookstore summed up Valentine's Day best in its e-newsletter this week: "And whether you love the holiday or hate it, books make everything better."

--Publiished by Shelf Awareness, issue #2935


Howard Frank Mosher--No Stranger in the Kingdom

Howard Frank Mosher

This is how I learned about Howard Frank Mosher's death: On Sunday, I was walking down a long hallway in the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis during ABA's Winter Institute when a familiar voice called my name. I turned to see Jenny Lyons of the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury. During the 1990s, we had worked together at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center. Jenny told me that Howard had died that morning.

Then Northshire's co-owner Chris Morrow suddenly appeared from around a corner and there we were, three Vermonters at a conference in Minnesota, talking quietly about a man we had all admired (and even better, genuinely liked) while some of the nearly 700 booksellers in attendance at Wi12 passed by us unaware of this brief, impromptu ceremony.

His death was not a shock. We knew Howard had been in hospice care. On both his personal and official Facebook pages recently, he had shared the sad news with friends and readers through a post that began, in classic understated Mosher style: "Well, the best laid plans, as they say."

I first met Howard in 1994, when he came to the Northshire for an event to launch Northern Borders. After that introduction, I knew I had some catching up to do and read Disappearances, Where the Rivers Flow North, Marie Blythe and A Stranger in the Kingdom. I've been one of his readers ever since. But more than that, I admired the guy. He was good people. As a native Vermonter, I was drawn to his stories about a part of "my" state he knew better than I did. Being a Vermont native also made me, by definition, a tougher audience, since Howard, who was originally from upstate New York, had to overcome my resistance to outsiders. He did.

Mosher reading at Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, Vt.

The outpouring of remembrances has been compelling. Vermont Public Radio featured "a celebration" of his life. Author Chris Bohjalian described him as "one of the most generous novelists I know." Don Bredes cited his willingness to "advocate energetically for an unpublished hopeful and promote the efforts of independent booksellers everywhere." Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, wrote: "New England is a little duller this week without Howard Frank Mosher’s brightness."

"Howard was a dear friend of the New England bookselling community," the New England Independent Booksellers Association's NEIBA News observed in a tribute that featured many other voices, including Claire Benedict of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier ("We will miss his smile, his charm, his unwavering love of the NEK and of course, his books."), Dick Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton, N.Y. (Howard was "a nearly perfect gentleman who wrote with fine style about what good writers must--the things that they know and experience in life."), and Richard Russo ("If we can somehow make it in the world without him, it'll be because he taught us how.").

In its e-newsletter yesterday, the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick wrote that Howard "was a customer of ours, usually calling in orders that we would mail to him at his home in Irasburg. When he called, he would be full of excitement to share a recommendation of a new author or book he'd discovered. The next time he called, he would ask, 'Did you have a chance to read (insert title here)?' Or he would have a funny story to share, maybe an interaction with a big-city publicist or a chain bookstore where he stopped for a reading. That story would be punctuated by a guffaw of laughter he just couldn't hold in, and you had to laugh when Howard laughed--the pleasure he took in telling these stories was infectious."

In 2015, when I interviewed Howard for a column highlighting his support of independent bookstores, he told me: "I don't think I've ever had an unpleasant experience at an indie bookstore." He spoke at length about the generosity, importance and dedication of indies; their crucial role in community building and how they "keep the culture going." He said he believed it would not have been possible to have his career as an author without the longtime support of indies.

I last saw Howard at NEIBA's fall trade show in September. His novel God's Kingdom had been a finalist for the New England Book Award, and in brief remarks at the awards dinner he offered his thanks to the booksellers "for all you've done for clueless scribblers like me and for millions of readers throughout New England. Thank you so much for everything you've done for constitutional rights."

Obituaries for children's authors often deploy the adjective "beloved," though you rarely see it for authors of adult books. But Northshire Bookstore co-founder Barbara Morrow used it in her piece for the store's e-newsletter yesterday, noting: "One of Vermont's most beloved and prolific authors was Howard Mosher, who--shockingly and sadly--died this past Sunday of cancer, surrounded by his family in his beloved Northeast Kingdom. He visited us just last fall, when he drove 3 1/2 hours each way to join the Northshire family to celebrate our 40th anniversary.... Howard Mosher was a Vermont treasure, and there is no better tribute to him than to get lost in one of his books depicting the world as he saw it. His new book, Points North, will be published in the coming months. Howard, we love you."

It's a good word, beloved, though Howard might have considered it a little over the top when applied to him. I'll use it anyway. Beloved Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher was a fine writer... and a good guy.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2930


ABA Wi01: Once Upon a Time...

It's quite possible that while you are reading this Friday morning, I'm on a flight to Minneapolis, where I'll have the pleasure of covering the 12th annual ABA Winter Institute with several of my Shelf Awareness colleagues.

I've been thinking about how far WI has come in just 11 years, which is probably what sparked that "once upon a time" headline above. On August 8, 2005, Shelf Awareness reported "the ABA will hold its first annual Winter Education Institute on January 26 and 27 in Long Beach, Calif. Free to all ABA members and staff, the Institute will feature education programming ABA put on at BEA and some new sessions; it is for both new and veteran booksellers. The program includes a 'What Are You Reading?' breakfast (its lunch equivalent at BEA is highly popular), a welcome lunch, an evening reception and an independent retailing luncheon."

What were you doing 11 years ago? Maybe you were at the first Winter Institute. I wasn't. In fact, I was still a few months away from joining Shelf Awareness, but this week I found myself time traveling through the archives to explore the origin story of WI01 (though it wasn't called that at the time, of course).

On December 23, Shelf Awareness reported that 260 booksellers from 170 stores had registered for the first Winter Institute. By January 26, 2006, WI01 finally opened "with a striking number of attendees--altogether 360 people have registered for the event," more than double the 150 that then-ABA CEO Avin Domnitz had said the organization would consider a "great amount."

The January 30, 2006 edition of Shelf Awareness featured the first of several pieces on the inaugural conference, under the headline: "Grade for ABA's First Winter Institute: A+." The piece noted that the nearly 400 attendees "had nothing but praise for the event. The mood was relaxed but intense, and many remarked on how easy it was to talk shop and socialize. Several industry veterans went so far as to call it the best bookseller-oriented event they had ever attended."

That's how it all began. In the archives, I found many tidbits that were, after more than decade, intriguing in both prospect and retrospect. Here's a sampling:

• "The seminars, most of which were similar to ones presented at BEA, emphasized business principles, how to increase sales, and such current topics as buy local programs and what independents can learn from independent businesses in other industries...."

• "One of the most striking sessions was the Emerging Leaders late-evening meeting at which many people, young and old, discussed the difficulties younger booksellers encounter. Relatively low wages and a lack of room for advancement at many bookstores were familiar themes. But as expressed by passionate, articulate and intelligent booksellers, the problems took on a more personal, more powerful form. One particularly poignant moment came when a young buyer at a large independent said that at BEA and other gatherings, even her peers at comparable stores don't treat her with much respect. Of course, the problem of who will be 'the next generation' of booksellers is all the more important nowadays because of the attractiveness of careers in other industries, particularly the Internet...."

• "There was no question that booksellers like the Winter Institute and want it to be repeated.... Several ABA staff members said a Winter Institute would likely continue being held in a part of the country far from BEA's location that year. Ironically the ABA may be faced with an unforeseen challenge: how to keep a popular event from growing so big that it might lose its cozy, focused quality."

Avin Domnitz

• "Above the Treeline, the online 'tool in managing inventory that has never existed before,' as ABA CEO Avin Domnitz put it, was the hot, new thing at the Winter Institute for the many booksellers unfamiliar with it. Above the Treeline had nearly 100 ABA member stores signed up before the event; based on bookseller reaction, that number will grow substantially this week."

• "One of the most entertaining and talked-about presentations at the ABA's Winter Institute last week was the panel on the Bookstore as Third Place, which featured Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, whose main store is in Coral Gables, Fla., Philip Rafshoon of Outwrite Bookstore and Coffee House, Atlanta, Ga., and showstopper Collette Morgan, owner of Wild Rumpus, Minneapolis, Minn."

• Russ Lawrence, owner of Chapter One Book Store, Hamilton, Mont., and v-p/secretary of the ABA, said bookstores "should have websites even if sales aren't high. 'People may not buy online but they use independent store websites to search for books and look up events,' he explained. 'They will find out information and bring it into the store to buy there.' Like store advertising and newsletters, a website should reflect the store's personality and content should be changed regularly. Lawrence commended Powells.com for 'providing wonderful content to bring people to the site again and again.' "

• Dee Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., "has been involved in a local organization called Sustainable Connections since its founding about four years ago.... Robinson said that 'the public is receptive. The mindset has changed over the years, and now they get it. They understand why buying local is important.' "

In the March 31 issue, Shelf Awareness reported: "Following the colossal success of the first ABA Winter Institute, held this past January in Long Beach, Calif., the association has noted that interest in the next Winter Institute, scheduled for Los Angeles early next year, has grown dramatically even though the ABA is not yet accepting registrations."

And now here we are in Minneapolis for WI12, ready for the next chapter of this pageturner.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2925


The 'Basil Fawlty of Booksellers' & Co.

Bernard Black, the patron saint of curmudgeonly booksellers

Bernard: You sold a lot of books. You got on well with customers.
Manny: Thank you.
B: I'm gonna have to let you go.
M: But I got on well with all the customers, I sold a lot of books!
B: It's not that kind of operation.

--"Manny's First Day" episode of BBC's Black Books (about the 20:20 mark)

After showcasing the quirky/quaint aspects of bookselling in Wigtown last week, I felt equal time rules demanded that we highlight the legendary curmudgeonly side of the trade, especially in light of certain recent viral headlines: "Steve Bloom: the Basil Fawlty of Booksellers"; "Yorkshire's 'bookseller from hell' regrets calling customer 'a pain in the arse' "; "Blame Yorkshire's wuthering winter, says wife of U.K.'s 'rudest bookseller' "; and even "What Britain's grumpiest bookshop owner can teach us about the NHS crisis."

Bloom, owner of Bloomindales in Hawes Market House, was accused of being ill-mannered to potential customers who refused to pay his 50p entry fee. The chairman of Hawes Parish Council said members want the bookseller to change his attitude or leave the town: "I have received more than 20 letters of complaint in the last four years about the abusive behavior of Mr. Bloom--by letter, e-mail and telephone.... The bookseller is a discredit to the good reputation of the town, he is letting the Market House trustees down time and again."

Having since expressed some regret for his behavior, Bloom nonetheless vowed to continue his admission fee policy: "I explain about the 50p and when they come to leave with a book I say keep the 50p. Many people then say 'no keep it or give it to charity.' So it goes to Compassion in World Farming.... Those people who get upset about the 50p feel challenged. This is a test. I want people who come into to shop to be interested and appreciative of books. This is not a bus stop or a room for browsers.... Now that this has got out to the press, all and sundry know how it works, so it won't be the same. But I'll continue to ask for it--I'm not bowing to pressure."


He even has supporters. In the Guardian, Stephen Moss wrote: "Mr. Bloom is one of the last, honorable remnants of this dying breed. Secondhand bookshops have been decimated by the Internet.... As for the rudeness, it goes with the territory. Secondhand booksellers are natural misanthropes. If you don't buy a book, you are wasting their time; if you do a buy a book, you are stealing one of their friends. Either way, they will hate you, so enjoy the miserable experience.... Book lovers are life haters--and Mr. Bloom is a hero, not a villain, keeping an ancient tradition alive."

We've all encountered the classic bookish curmudgeon. In my case, she was a librarian in the small Vermont town where I grew up who seemed to despise kids (I don't think it was just me.) and was forever ushering us back out onto the street when we lingered too long in the children's book room. Hers was a determined, if ultimately futile, attempt to derail my need to read.

During my long tenure on the sales floor, I tried to be a gracious and welcoming bookseller, though I suspect there's just a little Steve Bloom buried deep inside many of us. "Curmudgeon" is not an infrequent word used to describe folks in our profession. As recently as last summer, the New York Times noted that the Strand's "employees are known for being 'curmudgeonly' but also clever, even cool."

And last year, Jim Toole of Capitol Hill Books was labeled "D.C.'s most curmudgeonly store owner" by the Washingtonian in an interview where he explained his extensive set of rules for customers. Asked if patrons generally obeyed, he replied: "Either that or they go home. People either have to follow the orderly processes here, or they're asked to leave. What am I supposed to do, sit here as the owner of the bookstore and put up with some miscreant? The customer isn't always right. I am. People don't like that. They think I should be groveling--I don't grovel."

For our 2009 special April Fool's Day edition, I imagined a hyper-curmudgeonly bookseller who professed an "intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level--smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.... Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. 'Essentially, I make them eat their words,' Wilkins said. 'We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books.' "

As a model curmudgeon, however, Bernard Black still reigns supreme:

Bernard: What do they want from me? Why can't they leave me alone? I mean, what do they want from me?
Manny: They want to buy books.
B: Yeah, but why me? Why do they come to me?
M: Well, because you sell books.
B: Yeah, I know...

Words to live by? Um... maybe not.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2920

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