Yesterday I got up extra early to chat with Gene Mueller on WTMJ radio. He'd read the article in The New York Times about booksellers using crowdfunding to raise money. We talked about what makes customers make the decision to shop with us when our prices are higher than Amazon's. I felt a little bad because even though I had a lot to say about the topic, we didn't really get to that place, and I sort of feel like I let WTMJ down!
Yes, booksellers have been using various means to raise money. There's Kickstarter, of course, but that has an Amazon connection, and there's also Indiegogo. In many cases, however, booksellers have sent out appeals directly to their customers, searching for funds to move, or pay off loans. I wound up talking about this with Julie Bosman, the reporter who put together the story, for close to an hour, but just like WTMJ, there's never enough time to say everything.**
Sometimes booksellers add levels to their loyalty programs. Often it's just a direct appeal to ask folks who shop with them to move more of their purchases over from lowball websites. Other times they sell shares. But sometimes it's just asking for money. And if it's a question of a loan that's called in or moving expenses, you can see how this can change the bookstore's financial equation. Sometimes we should note, it won't change the equation long term. That's the risk you take in these things.
The first thing to note is that we are well aware that everyone who shops at Boswell could probably buy the thing they wanted cheaper somewhere else, with the possible exception of the markdown carts*. Not to say we don't have lots of bargain and second-hand titles, and a good selection of Boswell's Best at 20% off, plus a little more with the loyalty program. But we're all aware of the periodic price wars (like the one that just happened between Amazon and Overstock.com) and even during detentes, we can't compete on price.
Sometimes location trumps. But really, if I were a true neighborhood store and depended on the customer base within a couple of miles of our store, we'd be out of business quickly. No, it's folks coming five, ten, twenty miles to loyally shop with us that keeps us going. It's atmosphere, service and selection (not the most, because I can't win either, but a combination of what you're likely to want and what you might find interesting that you didn't know you want) that keep us going. And I'm not saying we do an amazing job on any of them, just that we do it well enough to keep going.*
This idea of customers giving money to bookstores to help us survive seems crazy, but in some ways, this is also something that's been going on for a long time. Many bookstores, including ones in the Milwaukee area, have been partnerships where some of the owners were "silent", meaning they were not involved in the day-to-day operations. Few of them had expectations of earning as much in returns as they would from a more typical investment. And some didn't get any returns at all.
The difference is that like in so many things, technology has lowered the barriers to entry.
With the Milwaukee area having gone through so many bookstore closings, our customers do worry about us. And one of the things I heard over and over again was that if we were in trouble, we were not supposed to announce our troubles when it was too late to help. No, we were directly told we needed to appeal to our customers.
This is a reassurance that I'm not doing that. But I'm noting the trend and acknowledging that you never know what the future holds, unless of course, you're the next Jeanne Dixon.
I had mentioned in the original article that folks sometimes think about indie bookstores the way they think about nonprofits--public radio, or a museum, or perhaps even an organization supporting a local park. Unlike some of these operations, which are quasi public, quasi nonprofit, we're definitely a for-profit organization. While some bookstores have tried to organize as nonprofits or coops, that comes with their own pitfalls.
One idea among bookstores has been to split into two. The folks at Booksmith who are now helping run Menlo Park's Kepler's has followed through on an idea that has been discussed many times--a for-profit bookstore paired with a nonprofit event programming foundation. In a way, it's not that different than a bookstore paired with a museum or zoo.
It's something that my bookselling colleague Karl Pohrt discussed when trying to figure out the direction of Ann Arbor's Shaman Drum. After changes in the industry (in their case, the decline of textbook sales), they were pursuing a similar model, and then looked at a completely nonprofit model. It wound up not happening, alas. Pohrt recently passed away after a long illness, and we just donated to the Children's Literacy Network in his name. Here's how you can do that too.
So bookstores continue to look at new ways to survive. We are salmon, swimming upstream. But sometimes we spawn, when we don't get eaten by bears.
*I just heard another bookstore describe why their loyal customers stood by them. It was confidential so I can't tell you the exact words, but I liked it because it was rhymey.
**Speaking of 620WTMJ, we're co-sponsoring Clark Howard's visit on Wednesday, August 28 at The Sunset Playhouse (6:30 PM) with them, along with the Elm Grove Library and (of course)The Sunset Playhouse. He's appearing for his new book, Clark Howard's Living Large for the Long Haul. It's kind of funny because I wonder what Howard would say about making purchasing decisions based on reasons other than price. I also noticed that we are the only indie bookstore involved with the tour--the Books and Company in Dayton is actually a division of Books a Million.