An Independent Local Bookstore Beats the Odds

Few industries have been overturned as violently by the information revolution as the book trade. Amazon.com has proven such an efficient, convenient, and comprehensive retailer of the printed word, that for years now observers have questioned whether it might mean the demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstore.

However, this does not tell the whole story. The bookstore business had already been decimated on a local level by the rise, first, of national chains within the once-thriving mall ecosystem (B. Dalton, Waldenbooks) and then of big-box stores (Barnes & Noble, Borders). The latter could offer a selection of inventory that most independents could not, but in turn they were roundly beaten at this game by the big yellow e-tailer, whose ability to retrieve what customers want to buy is slowly approaching infinity.

So when Borders went bankrupt last year, it might at first have seemed like the end of the physical bookstore. But away from the malls and main drags, all across America, a dwindling number of small, independent bookstores had long been hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

A case in point is Houston’s Brazos Bookstore. Founded in 1974 by local literary scenester Karl Killian, over the decades Brazos developed a reputation as one of the city’s artistic hotspots. Always first and foremost a labor of love, the store buckled under 21st -century financial pressures and nearly closed its doors before being rescued by a consortium of patrons of the arts in 2006.

brazos bookstore
Image by Liz and Gianna’s Adventure Bookland

Despite new ownership and management, the store continued to lose money and faced another crisis in 2011. The end looked nigh once more, but in a bold vote of confidence (nearly simultaneously with the Borders collapse!) the ownership elected to keep the store open and bring in new management again. Today’s manager, Jeremy Ellis, has overhauled both the image and the infrastructure of Brazos, bringing not only a palpable new vitality but a steady profit. I asked Mr. Ellis the keys to his success in this extremely challenging niche. Here are his answers:

1. A hyperlocal emphasis

One advantage Brazos has over competitors like Amazon and even Barnes & Noble is that it’s a genuine, unique part of the community. The store’s bulging Texana section and close relationships with area authors provide real assets that can’t be outmatched by the more impersonal online experience.

2. Aggressive social-media presence

In tandem with this community focus, Brazos has beefed up its online activity. Readings and other events are announced via Facebook, email newsletters, Twitter, and across multiple other platforms. In-store inventory is now visible on brazosbookstore.com, where they are also selling e-books. On an internal level, the office has streamlined its operations, going all-Google for mail, document collaboration, etc.

3. Personalized service

This spring the store launched an initiative called Inuchan, patterned on a Japanese retail concept Ellis had read about and become enamored with. Enrollees in this subscription program complete an interview with mysterious questions right out of a personality quiz (“Paris or New York?” “Dogs or cats?”) in order to determine what monthly books and gifts each customer will get. This high-end service complements the store’s existing book club, special-order policy, and savvy, approachable staff.

4. Quality over quantity

Along with the new manager came a new buyer, Danielle DuBois Dimond, a graduate of the University of Houston’s prestigious Creative Writing Program. Besides her extensive literary knowledge, Dimond brings a keen aesthetic eye, insisting that “customers do judge books by their covers and so I do too.” Indeed, the store almost gleams with colorful displays and its gorgeous out-facing art section. This is not mere frippery, says Dimond but another strategy of survival in the shadow of Amazon: “I treat my job like that of a curator, because that’s our competitive advantage: we can’t have everything, but we can have the best things.”

About the Author: Aniya Wells is a freelance blogger whose primary focus is writing about online degree programs. She also enjoys investigating trends in other niches, notably technology, traditional higher education, health, and small business. Aniya welcomes reader questions and comments at aniyawells@gmail.com.

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