The basement of Brookine Booksmith, filled with kaki-colored folding chairs and packed with even more people, was completely silent as the audience listened to Michael Fischer, an MFA candidate at Emerson, read from a compilation of short stories he aptly titled “The Mess”. Fischer’s recitation is part of the Breakwater Reading Series, a monthly reading of essays, poems and short stories by MFA candidates from all over the city. And it is just one of the ways that Brookline Booksmith has evolved its business strategy, reaching out to the community that surrounds it, allowing the store to not simply survive, but to thrive.
Like many brick-and-mortar independent book retailers, Brookline Booksmith is learning to acclimate to changes in the industry by emphasizing their assets: namely, product, location and personnel. With the introduction of mega online retailers, such as Amazon, which offer cheaper prices and the convenience of delivery, and devices like the kindle and e-books, the lifespan of the independent bookseller seems to be dwindling. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, half of American adults own an e-reader or tablet device. But for stores like Brookline Booksmith, the power of location trumps the convenience of the online retailer.
When Marshall Smith opened the doors of Brookline Booksmith in 1961, the store slogan read “dedicated to the fine art of browsing”, and to a large extent that is the store’s business model, even today. Smith’s idea was to arrange books by category rather than by publisher, which was the dominant browsing method at the time. This created a far more enjoyable experience for book buyers and is still used in most book stores even now. And while today independent bookstores are providing a much more personable and enjoyable buying experience than online retailers, sales strategies have shifted in order for business to continue thriving.
Dana Brigham, general manager and co-owner of the book store, says the store hosts far more events, like the Breakwater Reading Series and other author signings, than it used to. For a lot of events, the bookstore has to rent out the Coolidge Corner Theater, across the street from the bookstore, to accommodate such large audiences. The cost of attending these events is the price of whatever book is being publicized, which covers the cost Booksmith spends on renting the space and also provides ticket buyers with their own signed copy of the book.
“The business has to change in order to remain relevant and viable. Once it was all books and music, now it’s all books and events and gifts,” Brigham said.
This bookstore, like many other independent bookstores, has expanded their product base in an effort to compete with the online retailers, becoming a sort of one-stop-shop destination. You enter the store intending to buy one book and you leave with that cookbook you’ve been meaning to get, a happy birthday card for your mother, and a new wall calendar because you spilled coffee all over your old one. In fact, gifts accounted for 24 percent of Brookline Booksmith’s gross annual sales, last year.
“They have a great gift section. If you’re looking for something local or if you’re looking to bring something from out of state or something like that,” Amanda, a Cleveland Circle resident and Booksmith customer, said.
For many independent book retailers, a ripple effect of expanding their product base is they also expand their customer reach. Booksmith caters to a wide demographic, despite being located smack dab in the heart of college central. Brigham credits much of the store’s success to the neighborhood surrounding it.
“It’s a real community gathering place and it’s not just students that come here. We have a lot of professors, a large international base and a large Jewish community. There are a lot of families in the area and empty nesters that come back to Boston.”
Since their inception, online retailers like Amazon, have capitalized on the used-book buying trend, but Booksmith –like many other brick-and-mortar independent stores — has utilized this same trend for decades. Booksmith’s own used book cellar accounted for seven percent of the store’s annual sales from the 2014 fiscal year, according to Brigham.
While the advent of mega online retailers and the e-book phenomenon have certainly affected the market of independent book retailers, these changes have sparked a permanent shift for the better in the brick-and-mortar book sellers who can learn to evolve with the market. Though they wouldn’t release the actual number, Booksmith’s annual sales from the 2014 fiscal year are up significantly from previous years.
A naturally developed community enclave, Brookline Booksmith is able to utilize assets that the online world simply doesn’t have: a place to gather, to read and to listen. Or maybe it’s just the simple pleasure of leaving the store with a book in your hands.
Stats from first paragraph: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/01/16/e-reading-rises-as-device-ownership-jumps/