Sunday, March 08, 2009

Bookstore Tours!

Today was a lovely day to wake La Bicyclette from her winter hibernation, oil up the knee joints and set off on a bookstore tour!

My starting point was the newly formed New York Coalition for Independent Bookstores. This early in the biking season I knew I wasn't going far so I chose a couple stores that didn't involve hauling my sorry ass over a bridge (and back!)

I started at Melville House Publishers.

MHP Bookstore is a lovely space. If you stand at the cash register and turn around, the view is so vintage New York that had the Q train not chosen that moment to rattle overhead on the Manhattan Bridge, I could have sworn I was looking at New York 1899.

I almost didn't make it in to the store though. It was my first visit, I wasn't exactly sure where the place was. Once I got there, it looked closed. The lights were off; there was no one in the store. The only clue it might be open was the small sign hanging waist high on one of the doors. Since I'd just biked all the way down Flushing Ave, risking life limb and hatpin, I wanted to get off the bike anyway so I stopped.

It's a good thing I did; the store was open despite all evidence to the contrary.

After looking at a wonderful array of books, all from indie presses, I bought White Muslim By Brendan Bernhard. Like their store, this book (published by Melville House) is lovely to behold (book design kudos to David Konopka.)

Memo to MHP: turn on the lights! Put some signs on the railing!

By contrast, PS Bookshop two blocks up and one block over on Front Street was hopping! No question whether this place was open, I had to use the hatpin to get past all the shoppers lounging at the magazine racks. PS sells used books but they've clearly invested heavily in dustbusters and air cleaners! There wasn't a sign of musty old book smell or mildew despite the stacks and stacks of old and wonderful books. No books of Jane Kenyon poems, sadly. A bunch of Bill Vollman's works, but I was on my bike so no Vollman today. Then I found Damascus Gate by Robert Stone, a book I've been meaning to read. I snatched it up and slithered past another horde of shoppers to the cash register.

The interesting thing about this store is when I was planning this little trip yesterday I looked up the bookstores on the web. PS doesn't have a website. I assumed they'd closed (as is so often the case these days). Fortunately I called, just to double check. Yes indeed they are open, but their URL had been hijacked, so no website.

Memo to PS: C'mon guys, I'll give you the $20 to get a new domain name registered! This is not the right retail climate to be hard to find!

One of my ongoing rants about bookstores is that being hard to find, or making it complicated to buy books is one of the reasons customers go other places. The marketplace isn't run by "should" or "buy local." It's driven by giving customers what they want quickly and easily.

If I hadn't persevered in both cases, I wouldn't have gotten to the stores today. That's not usual customer behavior! I didn't spend more than $20 in either store, but you don't have to lose too many small sales to have a problem.

I don't claim to know much about running a retail business but turning on the lights, and having even a simple website with the hours of operation strike me as pretty basic.

C'mon Indies! We want you to succeed!


Tiffany Schmidt said...

I’m lucky enough to live near a great Indie bookstore. I stopped in today to pre-order a list of books and they couldn’t have made it easier: title, author, my name & I was out the door. Now I don’t need to worry about remembering release dates – as soon as they arrive, the store will call. It’s one less thing on my mental calendar and some phone calls to look forward to! I’m sure Amazon and B&N would do the same thing, but they’re not nearly as fun and personable. And they aren’t located half a block from my favorite coffee shop!

Being Beth said...

This post made me want to come to NYC, but I think i'd better get myself in better shape.

I agree with making it easy on the customers to stay in business. I'll go to Amazon rather than hunting something down, but I DO try to buy from independent bookstores via Amazon, since we DO have a choice of where we buy. I'll even pay a bit more to buy from an indie.

I enjoy your blog. Thanks for posting.

DebraLSchubert said...

Right on. There's nothing like a great indie bookstore.(Though I must confess I need my frequent Border's fix as well!)

SundaySoup said...

Whenever we go into a store (NOT a bookstore) and the clerk doesn't greet us, won't look at us, and gives the general impression that they're not interested, we refer to them as an "indie bookstore owner". I cannot tell you how many small bookstores (primarily used) that we've gone into across the US and Canada where we find someone who LOVES books so they opened a bookstore but actually hate the idea of selling books. Weird, eh? I'm not saying they're all like this, I know of one used bookstore in Victoria where they are all absolutely brilliant and excited to help you, but this does happen a lot. Especially in small towns. I agree, "come on!" let us help you.

Stuart Neville said...

Wow. I happened to walk past the MHP store today at around noon. I didn't know it existed, but I was exploring the area before walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. I noticed the tables of books through the window, and walked around, looking in, but I thought it was closed. Maybe it was closed at noon. Pity, I would have bought something just because it was there.

Anne-Marie said...

We are really lucky in Toronto to still have some indie bookstores (and also indie cinemas, though that's another topic). My favourite is Sleuth of Baker Street, which specialises in mysteries, naturally.

Great post, Janet. I'll add these stores to my list of places to go to the next time I'm in NYC, which is a visit long overdue.


ryan field said...

You're right. I owned a gallery for ten years and saw tons of other galleries around me come and go each year because cusomters didn't see lights, signs or regular posted hours. The owners spent more time (and money) worrying about the names of their stores than hanging a simple, cheap "Open" sign out front.

When dealing with the public, you can't assume anything.

Anonymous said...

Yay for the indies. :ahem: mine just won Bookseller of the year, Carmichaels. hehee plenty of shiny bright lights there! : D Great post!!