Bookstores of the Future: A Case Study of Retail Creativity

Bookstores of the Future: A Case Study of Retail Creativity

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Are bookstores facing a “survival of the fittest” era? If so, what can make a bookstore “fit?”

In the case study letter below, the key is creativity and willing to do something wholly different.

Last week I wrapped up my Bookstores of the Future project, in which I asked 800+ people to give me their thoughts on how bookstores could survive and prosper in the era of ebooks and ecommerce. Dick McLeester had responded to me as a store owner but I did not use his comment because I could not tell if his was an online or bricks-and-mortar store and the series was about the latter.

Bookseller as retail innovator

When I let him know, Dick responded with this insightful letter, which he agreed to let me post here. For anyone thinking of going into the book business, Dick’s views are a must-read. Dick doesn’t yet have a blog to share his experiences, but you can check out his website: www.changingworld.com to see how he combines online and pop-up sales, as well as the line of products he sells to augment book sales.

Carmen,

Thanks for writing. Your articles were interesting.

I realize that people call them “brick & mortar” stores to distinguish them from online booksellers, but I think there is a danger in that term, which is to define the Successful Bookseller of the Future just too narrowly.

In 1976, I launched a bookstore called Food For Thought Books with a total investment of $25.00. I was the founder and co-manager there for 10 years, before leaving to start my current business. (You can check, Food For Thought Books is in Amherst, Massachusetts, now a proud brick & mortar bookstore. But struggling to find their way to a  successful future. And probably because they are struggling to find their way, they would probably not be able to speak with much clarity to your questions.)

I was able to start Food For Thought with little capital because of a strong vision of the possibilities and because we were able to bring  books to people who were hungry for them. For the first two years we paid no rent or salary, and grew very fast. We became experts at  setting up instant bookstores at event, conferences, festivals and meetings. We did this in a way that very few booksellers today know how to do, because they start with a retail shop where they need to pay rent and get people to come there.

When I left Food For Thought to start VisionWorks, it was because I had a larger vision of what was needed for booksellers to be successful into the future. I realized that today, ideas and information are carried not just in books, but often on other vehicles, such as postcards, bumperstickers, calendars, magnets or buttons. In most bookstores these are seen as valuable sidelines or gift items, but someone who runs a shop usually cannot devote much energy to having a really good selection because it is such alot of  work to order from all these little companies, including overseas suppliers. So VisionWorks is set up as a wholesale distributor, making it easy for any retailer (bookseller or otherwise) to get a great selection from hundreds of suppliers by placing one order. For us, we sell way more cards, stickers and calendars than we do books.  But books are still really important to us, and we sell large quantities of some books.

How? We sell at select Conferences, where we bring the books to people who are looking for certain ideas & information. 4 events per  year. We get huge book sales in a short time. We sell more books retail at those events than we do in our brick & mortar store. More than we sell wholesale. More than we sell online. At these events,  it is primarily books that sell, and the cards, stickers and calendars are an important, high-margin sideline. But it is really the Cards, Stickers & Calendars that we sell wholesale to retailers across the country that keeps us in business, that makes it all work. And now we also publish postcards, so we have a hand in making sure our selection is really educational, informative and connected to the ideas in books we offer.

My point is that anyone who wants to have a successful bookstore into the future, needs to be flexible and creative. They need to look at whatever will work for them, and then work that angle, even if it looks very different than how a traditional bookstore has looked. If this means taking the books to the events where hungry minds gather, they need to get really good at that. If they think that cards and stickers are something that can really work for them, they need to really work it, to be the best. And if that means those things become  75% off their sales and books only 20%, then go with that. What used  to be thought of as a sideline, may become the main thing. But we  need to pay attention to that.

I think there will always be an important role for good booksellers, but right now they need to be creative, flexible and willing to take risks, to think differently. That’s my perspective. One day soon, I  think I need to get working on a blog and put some of this out that way. I am especially curious to see how others will respond, esp.  those who are running some of the more traditional bookshops, indie shops, brick & mortar.

Thanks for starting the conversations. Best, Dick “I am a bookseller, really” McLeester 

VisionWorks website:  www.changingworld.com

Thank you, Dick, for agreeing to share your views and showing us that book retailers who think outside the cover will succeed!

Read all of the Bookstores of the Future posts in the #noticed category

Can Business Partnerships Save the Bookstore?

Can Business Partnerships Save the Bookstore?

Business partnerships maximize resources and leverage each partner’s audience and strengths. Could business partnerships save the bricks-and-mortar bookstore as well?

This article is part of my Bookstore of the Future Project in which I’m asking a simple question and posing it to authors, book bloggers, publishers, and store owners:

In the age of ebooks and ecommerce what should bookstores look like in order to stay relevant and solvent?

The answers, both disturbing and hopeful, will be compiled into a series of articles. As I research the state of bookstores today, partnerships have come up many times and there may be some good ideas to be found in the discussion.

What do Successful Business Partnerships look Like?

In an ideal business partnership, the audience for one product or service is predisposed to like the partner product or service, and both businesses benefit. Here are a couple to think about:

photo courtesy of camaro5.com

photo courtesy of camaro5.com

Hawaii 5-0 and Chevy:  If you have ever seen an episode of Hawaii 5-0, you know the show has a partnership with Chevrolet. All of the 5-0 detectives drive Chevy vehicles, with the showcase car being Danny’s Camaro. The cars get almost as much screen time as Alex O’Loughlin’s bare torso and the show’s dialogue often includes a casual remark about low gas consumption or sweet cornering. But the real impact is off-screen. Not only have Hawaiian Chevy dealers gotten a boost but there are dozens of blogs and articles about the show’s cars and tie-ins, all of which is good word-of-mouth for the Chevy brand.

High Street fashion designers and Target: The capsule collections by big name designers like Missoni, Philip Lim, and Prabal Gurung give everybody a boost: the big name designer is able to reach a wider audience with a highly profitable venture, Target differentiates itself from competition like Walmart and Kohl’s, and customers get labels they could not otherwise afford. In fact the capsule collections have proven so popular that the Target website actually crashed in 2011 when the Missoni collection premiered. Here’s an article from Target about designers competing to be part of the trend.

Land o’ Lakes and University of Minnesota: There are many examples of collaborations between universities and businesses out there but this internship story resonates because the school and the business have roots in the local community. Internships are amazing partnerships; students seek out schools that give them great internships which are resume-worthy work experiences. Those students have a head start when job hunting after graduation. The businesses get to evaluate potential hires without a high cost or commitment. A win all around.

Business Partnerships for Bookstores?

The bookstore with a partnership might look a lot different than a space with only books in it, with a few cards or bookmarks thrown in for good measure. Here are a few examples the book industry could build on:

photo courtesy of shopwillowbend.com

photo courtesy of shopwillowbend.com

Books and Fashion: Both Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters are trendy, upscale stores with a dedicated fan base. Fashion is the main product line for both stores, but a shopper will also find home goods like quilts and painted knobs in Anthropologie and funky chalkboards in Urban Outfitters. And both carry books geared to their shopper demographics and the overall vibe of the store. The Urban Outfitter in Cambridge, MA, had a terrific collection of humor, art, and design books when I was there last year, and Anthropologie stores can usually be relied upon to have cookbooks, shelter, fashion, gift books, and journals.

Books and Museums: The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is one of the best places to go for aviation-themed books. The bookstore in the Udvar-Hazy Center of the museum in Dulles, VA quickly sells out of titles and it is not uncommon to walk by empty shelves. Across the pond, the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge University, UK, is part think tank, part museum, and part bookstore which features books by and about polar explorers. Most of the titles are hard-to-find or unique books that are sold both at the institute and online via the institute’s website.

Books and Hotels: As this New York Times article shows, people who stay at hotels might want something to read. While the article talks about a library, a capsule bookstore can also cater to that audience. From my own experience, one of my own favorite bookstore discoveries was the shop-within-a-shop at the Sheraton Bijao Resort in Panama.

Why Not Partnerships?

If business partnerships are such hot stuff, why don’t we see more of them in the book industry? The answer might lie in the traditional ways most print books are distributed and the volume of books that big distributors want a book retailer to purchase. A retail space that is a partnership of products like books and fashion, won’t have the sales volume a big distributor would want.

Could independent authors and small publishers be the logical answer for partnerships? Yes, but only if book quality matches the non-book partner’s wares. Plus, everyone must have the patience to deal with multiple producers rather than just one big book vendor.

Read all of the  Bookstores of the Future posts in the #noticed category

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

A Nicaragua Christmas: The Treasures of Alter Eco

A Nicaragua Christmas: The Treasures of Alter Eco

Advertising in Managua, Nicaragua, can be hit-or-miss so I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find when I walked into Alter Eco, which bills itself as an alianza hecho a mano. This “alliance” is actually a cluster of artist shops and studios near the big art and antiques store Mama Delfina.

The displays and inventory would be at home in New York or London or Mexico City. Here are some of the treasures I discovered.

cotton clothing

This charming clothing and accessories boutique has a Laura-Ashley-meets-Chanel vibe. Simple cotton and linen pieces kept to a pink, rust, and gray palette.


boutique

Visitors to the boutique are immediately drawn in by the charming wall decor featuring trees, birds and 3-D blossoms


boutique ceiling

Silver “raindrops” fall from the tree branches and blossoms on the ceiling


jewelry

Accessories included locally-sourced jewelry and lizard clutches and belts


talavera

The ceramics studio had a beautiful selection of Mexican talavera


Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco


The place to go for customized tequila shot glasses!


Talavera plaque reading “God Bless This Home.” My wish for you this holiday season.

A Nicaragua Christmas: Shopping at Mama Delfina’s

Managua, Nicaragua, is full of surprises including the beautiful art and antique store, Mama Delfina’s.  Housed in a large white Spanish colonial building with an open courtyard and beautiful old brickwork, the place is a treasure trove of handmade holiday gifts and decorations, carefully curated to offer a collection of best locally-produced items.

While the original Delfina, whose picture is above the cash register, looked on with stiff-necked amusement, the staff graciously let me roam around and take pictures. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did!

Mama Delfina entrance

An old picture of Delfina and a painting of the store hang above the antique blue counter


artwork at Mama Delfina

The store features beautiful displays of painted boxes, frames, wooden angels and handmade paper goods


Silver frames

Some of the frames are of intricately punched metal, a technique that in Mexico is called repujado


Christmas ornaments

All the Christmas ornaments at Mama Delfina’s are one-of-a-kind


Boxes

Each painted box was a mini-masterpiece of abstract art. Loved the wonderful tablescapes throughout the store.


desk

The store is arranged as a series of vignettes showcasing art and antiques.


textile bags on display

The store carries a line of bags made from a loomed woven fabric that was prohibited during the Samoza regime but is now being reproduced in Nicaragua


archways of art

A beautiful vignette of art, holiday items, and antiques


art on wall

The store chooses and displays art with a practiced eye

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Love to find that perfect travel memory? Love authentic handcrafts? Head for Mexico City’s markets.

Markets inspired much of the atmostphere I wrote into THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, the romantic thriller and modern Cinderella story. The sights, sounds, and temptations of Mexico City’s markets helped drive the novel’s authenticity.

Get it today on Amazon

Find more than souvenirs

Mexico City’s markets are where you can fall in love with the country’s culture, people-watch both buyers and sellers, and find some of the best street food, too. Just watch your purse/backpack/wallet. Like every big city, Mexico City has its share of clever pickpockets, even in the best markets.

Related: The Lost Chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Each market has its own flavor and specialty items and everyone I know has their favorites. These are mine.

Bazaar Sabado

Bazaar Sabado art

Samples of handicrafts available at Bazaar Sabado. Courtesy http://elbazaarsabado.com/mx/#expositores

A straight shot down the big Periferico highway from the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec area, San Angel is the most colonial of all the Mexico City neighborhoods, with old Spanish architecture and a charm that makes you want to stay and explore. The market—Saturdays only–is located on the edge of the Plaza San Jacinto and spills outside the building, making it an interesting but fairly well contained exploration. This is the place for very high quality (prices reflect that, too) glassware, metalcrafts, mosaics, artwork, etc. There are several restaurants nearby with great food, too. The market’s website gives more information.

The main building is organized like a US antiques mall, with vendors in stalls surrounding the building’s courtyard. My favorite purchases there have been beautiful laquerware and cedar carvings of a village, including different churches. Alas, the dog ate the carvings (no kidding) and when I went back the vendor wasn’t there. The rule here, as with all Mexican markets: if you see it and like it, buy it NOW. You probably won’t see it again. These are pieces of art, not mass market products.

I’m also kicking myself for never having bought any of the glass mosaic pieces—candle hurricane lamps, bowls, etc– that are a feature of this market, so if you go, let me know.

Jardin del Arte

Jardin del Arte Mexico City

Photo by Agustin Valero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9070692

“They waded into the sea of paintings that was Jardin del Arte.”

This quote from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY says it all. This Sunday market is devoted to paintings of all sizes and shapes and is one of my favorite weekend places. It is held in a park at the northeast end of Rio Lerma (on Saturdays there are ballroom dancing events where older couples come out and dance to big band sounds.) Artists whose paintings are sold for thousands in galleries come with the lesser pieces which you can buy for a fraction of their worth.

Then there are the unknown artists with one or two unique items, the artists who make a living selling the predictable Mexican village scene of a house, a girl, and a donkey, and the rest who make this a feast for the art lover.

On the fringes of the park there are vendors who sell art supplies—every size and shape of canvas and type of paint and pastel. I knew one American woman who bought several paintings every weekend for a year and opened a gallery in the US with them. No doubt she jump-started many a Mexican artist’s career.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Mercado de Jamaica

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This is where people buy their voodoo stuff, I was told. Be careful if you go.

And yes, I saw the voodoo candles and statues of Santa Muerto, the saint of death idolized by drug cartels. Bottles of herbs and pamphlets with incantations. I bought a candle with special coins guaranteed to enhance the wealth of my family . . . still waiting to see the results.

Bu this sprawling market is also where the best Halloween/Day of the Dead costumes are sold, as well as flowers, food, pets, fabrics, household pots and pans, and just about anything else you can expect a Mexico City householder to use. Here’s a wonderful description of the market by Mexico City-based artist Jim Johnston.

Don’t miss out! Get your free copy of the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Free download here.

Cuidadela

The market at Balderas

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This downtown city market is a warren of vendor stalls with a big selection of handicrafts and household goods. It is big but the quality is a notch below Bazaar Sabado and the pickpockets are more in evidence. Expect more aggressive vendors, too.

My best purchase there was a ¾ size guitar for $40 that was well-crafted with a nice solid sound, perfect for a son learning a new instrument. We still have it, many years later.

I also got a Bruce the shark piñata for my daughter’s Nemo-themed birthday party that was nearly impossible to break (Daddy had to cut it open with a penknife before the kids could get the candy inside!)

This is a great place for embroidered tablecloths and talavera, the heavy painted pottery from Puebla. Many vendors will take custom orders and deliver the finished tableware to your house. If you aren’t ready to buy, ask for the vendor’s card (tarjeta) so you’ll know how to find them when you are.

Insurgentes

Otomi embroidered cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon, Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

This upscale market on the Reforma side of the Zona Rosa is the best place for jewelry and the beautiful embroidered cloth by the Otomi Indians. It is near the Plaza des Angeles, a wonderful (and pricey) antiques mall with Spanish Colonial china, furniture, and artwork. (I have a soft spot in my heart for this place because I once left my car unlocked all day in front of it and the car was wholly untouched when I returned. A small urban miracle.)

The Insurgentes market can be a tight crawl; the vendors are squeezed together and the aisles between the rows of stalls are narrow. Most sell sterling silver jewelry and weigh an item before giving you a price. Stall owners can usually be found with a cloth polishing their silver inventory and will want to show you more items than what is on display. Lots of good copies of Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and TOUS jewelry but the Mexican-designed necklaces, rings, and bracelets can be breath-taking, especially those with semi-precious stones.

The Otomi cloth is unique, embroidered with big animals, many of which are imaginary. The thread is often one color, making a big statement that looks very modern, although some are multicolored. Vendors at the market generally sell pieces big enough to be a bedspread—for $300 and up—as well as pillow covers, table runners, and place mat-sized pieces. Ask to see more than what is displayed; almost all fabric vendors will have more folded up and stacked somewhere. So You Think You Can Dance TV host Cat Deeley had a pile of Otomi pillows on her patio in InStyle magazine. If you can’t get to the market, find these beautiful textiles at Zinnia Folk Art, which always has a wonderful selection.

Coyoacan

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

The market in Coyoacan, near the bright blue Frida Khalo museum, is worth a stop if you are in the area. Coyoacan was among the first of the Mexico City’s neighborhoods to rbe named as one of Mexico’s Barrios Magicos (Magic Neighborhoods) due to its  tree-lined cobblestone streets, colonial-era homes, and rich cultural history. It’s got great local produce, as well as as a carnival of street food, including chapulines (fried grasshoppers.)

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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