Just because Bailey/Coy has closed and Elliott Bay is likely leaving Pioneer Square doesn’t mean local independent bookstores are waving the white flag. The ever-spirited Seattle shop owners have their own tips for staying alive in an increasingly hostile bookseller’s market.
Tip No. 1: Take risks. Summer Robinson opened her new shop in June, smack in the middle of a recession. Yes, it was a scary proposition. And yes, Pilot Books is about the size of a studio apartment. But with a “nothing to lose” attitude, Robinson can stock her shelves with hand-picked, small-press books; it’s the revival of the discerning shopkeeper! “I want to provide something that people can’t get online,” she says, whether that be rare, out-of-print books, or face-to-face conversations about what you’re about to buy. It’s not a novel concept (pun very much intended). But it’s the thought that counts.
Tip No. 2: Work your arse off. We found Phil Bevis behind the counter of Arundel on a Sunday. “One of the perks of owning your own bookstore,” he says wryly. While working weekends may be a prerequisite for indie shop owners, Bevis also relies heavily on “offering people an experience.” Customers can buy anything at a superstore, he reasons, so you have to give them different incentives, like knowledgeable staff members with a decade (or more) of experience, or a shop that offers a quaint, quiet space for browsing rare books. “It’s like going to a boutique,” he muses, “but without the pretension.”
Seattle Mystery Bookshop
Tip No. 3: Fill a niche. JB Dickey’s bookstore is a mystery lover’s dream, home to the most comprehensive collection of thrillers and whodunits in Seattle. Dickey devotes the store’s space “to the authors and titles that larger, general booksellers can’t and don’t stock,” like all the Nero Wolfe mysteries you could ever want, dating back to 1914. SMB also boasts a staff of mystery fanatics, and a loyal customer base that extends far beyond Seattle. “Our mail-order business for new, used, and collectible books is a healthy part of our normal course of business,” Dickey says. And it’s kept them in their Pioneer Square digs for 19 years and counting.
Tip No 4: Give ‘em what they want. Stephanie Ogle, proprietor of Cinema Books for more than 40 years, understands the nature of the market (“Internet buying is so convenient!”). She even blogs. To compete with one-click shopping, Ogle’s shop offers both the joys of book browsing and convenience. “Cinema Books looks for the books our customers want and will call or email them when they come in,” she says. With decades of conversations informing their decisions, they can even anticipate the books the regulars will want. This is personalized service at its best.