I saw a post the other day that reflects the challenges of bookselling, particularly if you are based in a small town.
“There are big changes afoot at and in and with Blue Jacket Books about which I wish to inform you. How’s that for a bracing opening?
I’m excited about the future, I am, don’t think that I’m not, but I am forced to go in a different direction so as to make a living.
Here’s why: I love selling retail, I love being your hometown, independent bookseller, but in terms of in-store sales (not on-line, that is), the bookstore operates at a net loss. Very few Xenians buy books here. Sales in-store have for a long time been flat, slow, maybe even declining. The terrible truth is that, the better has the bookstore become, the better the books, the larger the number thereof, the better the organization, etc., the worse have become the in-store sales. Compliments are up, our reputation improves by the day, the oohs and aahs become more vocal, we get Facebook “likes” by the cart-load, but yet very few people actually buy the danged books, especially not from Xenia. Our customers from Xenia are loyal, don’t get me wrong, but they are not many.
We’re doing okay on-line, we’re doing okay with direct orders, too, but I can’t keep working 80 hours a week so as to lose money in-store. We love the building, we love being in Xenia, we get along great with our building occupants and fellow small-business people, but again, few of our customers are from Xenia. $81 Saturdays and $123 First Fridays and the occasional $0 days have left permanent dents in my psyche. I don’t expect the political-economy or the socio-demography of Xenia to change, so I must try something else.
I’ve therefore decided to move in a different direction.”
I had a delightful visit a couple years ago to Blue Jacket Books in Xenia, which is about a 45 minute or so drive from Columbus. I wrote about it here. We had a delightful time with the owner, came away with an armload of books, and intentions of coming back some time. I have to admit wondering how such a wonderful place could make it in a small town.
I have another friend I’ve met online who also puts in long weeks, sells books at conferences, promotes the store online, and barely scrapes by. He knows books and, at the drop of a hat, can probably make ten good recommendations on any subject, after getting to know you. I much prefer that kind of attention to an algorithm, but perhaps I’m in a minority. That big online bookseller makes getting books quick and easy for those who still read. And like the store in Xenia, direct and online sales rather than in-store sales enable him to stay afloat.
So I can see how the move online makes sense for the folks at Blue Jacket. They can probably do better business in fewer hours (an many people who run stores like this are at the stage of life where they want to go slower). The store definitely appeals to a literate crowd. If Xenia, a town of just over 25,000 and the county seat of Greene Country, were a college town, it might sustain a store like this. Nevertheless, I can see how the loss of the store decreases the mix of stores and the richness of its cultural life. I don’t know the answer to this, aside from a broad cultural change in reading habits and habits of mind.
For now, the store is “purging” their inventory, at least through the end of July according to their Facebook page. In a Dayton Daily News story, it sounds like they are trying to sell off 30,000 of the 50,000 books in their inventory to focus on selling Civil War, Americana, academic works and fine art via direct and online sales. Blue Jacket Books is located at 30 S. Detroit Street, Xenia, OH 45385 and their phone is 937-376-3522, if you want to pick up a great bargain during their “purge.” I assume their website will remain the access point for their online business. But the loss of this good place with its various rooms of books on different topics is one more marker on the road to what I think a less intellectually rich and interesting society. But thanks, Lawrence Hammar and Cassandra Lee for making it such a good place for the past ten years. I wish you well as you take Blue Jacket in a different direction!