Blue Jacket Books Moving in a Different Direction

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Lawrence Hammar, co-owner of Blue Jacket Books, in one of the many rooms of books in his store.

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!

Visit Your Favorite Indie Bookstore This Saturday!

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The delightful children’s section at Gramercy Books, an independent bookseller in Bexley, Ohio.

This Saturday, April 29, would be a good day to visit your favorite independent bookstore. It is Independent Bookstore Day in the U.S. and at least 458 stores are participating according to Publishers Weekly.

Just to go on record, in case you haven’t noticed, I am a HUGE fan of indie bookstores–whether they are retail or re-sale. It’s not just that I like bookstores, but there are several things I especially like about independent booksellers. One is that they contribute to the fabric and cultural richness of our communities. Two is that they contribute to the relational richness of our communities. Independent booksellers livelihood depends on knowing their customers. I’ve been in some stores that have an atmosphere a bit like Cheers–everybody knows your name and they are always glad you are here. And finally, these booksellers help us connect both with the books we are looking for and the books that are looking for us.

Stores have come up with some novel attractions, according to the PW article. Brazos Bookstore in Houston is giving out Cormac McCarthy self-published coloring books. They come with two crayons–red and black. Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett’s store in Nashville promises, “a brand new, never before seen, original story created before your very eyes by Nashville’s finest literary talents!” In some cities, including Minneapolis and Chicago, indies are teaming up to offer discount programs tiered by how many stores you visit. One of the weirder giveaways at some stores are literary themed condoms (sigh…).

The real point of the day is to encourage people to visit and leave with books they and those they care for will love. For many stores, this day is like Christmas in April. What I hope it is for many of us is the first (or second or third) step in cultivating a habit. These stores won’t thrive if those of us who are book lovers simply say, “someone else will buy from them.”

Some of us may struggle with the bargain-hunter mentality that tries to find the book at its lowest price. In addition to the fact that this may tempt us to buy more books than we will read (guilty as charged), the care of selecting a book we will buy to read and keep may be another benefit of buying our books at stores that don’t buy in bulk.

Finally, most of these stores take orders over the phone or online. If you can’t go visit them this Saturday, why not support them this way? You might consider doing so early because it sounds like they could be busy on Saturday. For the love of books and for the health of our communities, let’s hope so!

InterVarsity Press Website Update

InterVarsity PressAnyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that a number of the books I review (about a quarter I would estimate) are published by InterVarsity Press. Call it an occupational hazard of working for the collegiate ministry that is the parent organization of which InterVarsity Press is part. We have the opportunity to purchase new releases at a significant discount, all books for a good discount, and they send us occasional freebies. Not a bad fringe benefit, eh?

Recently, when I went to link to a book I was reviewing, I discovered that InterVarsity Press (hereafter, IVP) has completed an elegant update of the website. I visit a number of publisher websites and was very impressed with the look, navigability, and content of the site.

First the homepage. For those searching for a specific title, there is a search bar just below the IVP logo allowing searches by keywords, titles, authors, or series names like “LifeGuide.” Opposite the search bar is a free shipping offer, log in and cart (yes you can have an account and buy stuff direct!). Below the searchbar you see the site menu. “Books” lists categories of books you can search under. “IVP Academic” includes a listing of their academic line books, a textbook locator for professors, instructor resources, an exam or desk copy request form and a catalog request. “About our authors” features authors, provides author booking information and allows you to contact authors through IVP. “Special offers” includes info on their book club, and special programs for commentaries, sets and bulk discounts. There is finally a selection just related to the book club.

Below a rotating banner with clickable features appear IVP’s latest releases. Scrolling down the page, one finds a row of boxes (which may change over time) but feature a “Hard Saying of the Day,” an e-book of the week, a “Meet Our Authors,” and a chance to subscribe to newsletters for the different publishing lines of IVP.  Further down, is a row of “Trending Now Books”. By clicking on the covers you can go to the page for the book. Then you come to a row listing the different lines of IVP books and currently featured titles in each line — IVP Academic, IVP Books, IVP Connect, Formatio, and Praxis. Each drop down describes the line, and in addition to featured books shows featured authors and news.

At the very bottom of the page you can access a number of options under “Resources,” “Partners,” “Help” and “About. Two that I will highlight:

  • The “Daily Quiet Time Study,” a long time feature that provides a biblical passage and discussion questions from one of IVP’s study guides. I was glad to see they kept this feature–a great place to go for substantive daily Bible reading and study.
  • “Discussion guides” leads to a page showing over sixty discussion guides for books published by IVP, a great resource if you are looking for a book to discuss in a group.

If you go to a page for a book, you will find a good size rendering of the cover, publication data including page counts and ISBN numbers, a discounted price and order button. Below these are a description of the book, endorsements, and an author profile. To the right of these are a table of contents, a press kit link for the book (downloadable PDF), related IVP books, and other books by the author published by IVP. One thing I noted that they eliminated from the former website were Goodreads reviews from readers (I suppose one can go to Goodreads for these). Overall, this makes for a cleaner appearance of these pages.

I suspect they are still refining some features on the site. I discovered that clicking on the “Hard Saying of the Day” takes one to a “this page does not exist” page.  When the site first went up, I was dismayed that the former links to the site I had used for many of the books I reviewed had the same problem. Now when you click on links for a book under the old website system, they forward to the current site for the book. Thanks for fixing that,  IVP, so that I don’t have hundreds of links that don’t work on my blog! I should also note that I have not tried using the mobile version of the site extensively. I did discover that for some reason, when I tried entering something in the searchbar, I could not keep the search bar or my Android keyboard visible, and thus could not search. At this point, I would say the site feels more computer- than mobile-friendly.

All in all, IVP has created a new, very up to date looking site with a clean appearance, easy navigability, and many features for book buyers and for readers. There are no pop-ups or overlay ads that can be so annoying. What one finds is a site that makes getting information about a book you might be interested in easy, allows you to order that book, or in many cases, an e-book easily (which provides a higher return to the publisher than going to that big online seller) and offers some wonderful free resources to enhance your devotional and reading life.

Bookstore Review: Steeple People

20170327_140732Steeple People Bookstore may possibly be the best kept bookstore secret in Columbus, or even Bexley, where it is located. We discovered it when we were planning a trip to visit Gramercy Books, and checking out what other interesting businesses we could find on East Main Street in Bexley.  As a result, our visit to Bexley turned into a mini-bookstore crawl!

One of the reasons Steeple People may not be very well known is that it serves the students of Trinity Lutheran Seminary as the source for textbooks for their classes, being housed in the lower level of the main classroom building for the seminary. But it is also a supplier of church supplies ranging from communion supplies to clergy clothing to worship materials and educational materials, particularly for more traditional denominational congregations and especially Episcopal and Lutheran congregations, based on merchandise advertised on their website. What I found unusual for a church-related store was the modest and tasteful selection of gift items, which seem to dominate many religious bookstores. Kind of refreshing, I would say.

I probably represented that unusual customer who came into the store neither for church supplies or class books but for the other thing they advertise, which are theological books. And, as advertised, I found a fairly interesting selection of books reflecting a mainline Protestant perspective. I did find a fair number of books by two of my favorite authors, Walter Bruggemann and N. T. Wright. Also, given that this is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the Ninety Five Theses, there were quite a few books on Luther and the Reformation. But one may also find devotional and spiritual formation texts, books on counselling, stewardship, leadership, biblical studies and theology. All these are displayed in a well-lit store with many books featured cover out, rather than tightly crammed on shelves.

We found a cart with “half off” books just outside the doorway as well as a sale table in the store itself. There is a separate area off the main store area where classroom books are shelved. When we visited, this area had very little in it, as spring term texts had been returned and summer texts were not yet in–typical of any college bookstore.

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A central seating area and a nearby coffee bar invite people to sit and browse book selections or relax and talk with friends. It could make a nice spot for a small book club as well. The store doesn’t arrange its own events but supports seminary speaker appearances by selling books of visiting authors and hosting book-signings after they speak.

If you are visiting Steeple People, you can either find nearby street parking or park in one of the “Visitor” spaces in the lot off College Avenue behind the seminary building. You come in via the lower level back entrance, veer slightly to the left and walk down a hallway toward the front of the building. The store is at the end of the hall.

Store hours as listed on Google are:

Monday – Friday   9 am to 5 pm

Saturday                 9 am to 1 pm

Sunday                    Closed

Phone 614-236-4237

Email: store@steeplepeoplebookstore.com

Website: http://www.steeplepeoplebookstore.com

Bookstore Review: Gramercy Books

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Gramercy Books Entrance

On December 13, 2016, Publishers Weekly posted an article that caught my attention: Gramercy Books Opens in Columbus. That is big news. No retail independent bookstore has opened in Columbus in at least a dozen years. The store was the idea of co-owner and author Linda Kass (author of Tasa’s Song), who was inspired by a visit to Sundog Books, in the Florida panhandle, nearly 20 years ago. Store manager Debra Boggs told me that in preparation to launch the store, Linda visited a number of the best independent stores in the country including fellow author Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books, in Nashville, Tennessee. Then she teamed up with co-owner and general manager John Gaylord, a long-time bookseller who operated a number of Little Professor Stores, and store manager Debra in opening the store in early December 2016 (grand opening was January 27-29, 2017).

We visited Gramercy Books this week for the first time. Gramercy Books is located on the northwest corner of East Main Street and Cassidy in the newly re-developing shopping corridor in downtown Bexley, across the street from the Bexley Public Library. It is on the first floor of a condo building developed by her husband, developer Frank Kass. Connected to the store is a delightful little café and bakery, Kittie’s Café, owned by the folks who run Kittie’s Bakery in German Village. They feature Stumptown Coffee and delicious baked goods (coffee, baked goods, and books, what is not to like?). There is parking on the street as well as behind the building off of Cassidy.

The main entrance is off of East Main Street and everything spells “inviting” — the black lettered “Gramercy Books” against the light gray stone, below which is a black awning with white pin stripes and the doorway itself with “Find adventure here” stenciled on the window beside the doorway. One steps into a bright, well-lit and thoughtfully laid out store. In front as you enter, you find featured titles and best-sellers. To the right are periodicals and beyond that to the right, behind Kittie’s, is the area for children’s and youth books.

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Children’s and Young Readers Area

Behind the sales counter, you will find an ample selection of Young Adult fiction. In the back left corner of the store, on the back and left walls are the fiction and literature sections. As one looks about the store, one’s eye is drawn here. I found a collection of Langston Hughes poetry in this ample section. Books in a number of non-fiction subject areas may be found in aisles of shelves arranged on either side of the sales counter. This includes books on Ohio and Ohio authors, an ample selection of history and biography, political science, social science and psychology and self-help books, business, sports, spirituality, and arts sections. The front corner to the right of the entrance has a collection of books on cooking. There were kiosks in different parts of the store featuring favorite books of Linda Kass, and the store manager, Debra Boggs.

What impressed me was the wide variety of interesting books from popular best-sellers to serious and thoughtful fiction and non-fiction writing. The team at Gramercy describes it as a “curated bookstore.” Recommendations by different booksellers may be found throughout the store, and it was clear from talking with Debra Boggs that much thought is given to the tastes of their customers as well as the recommendations of trade publications. The feel is much more personal than a large chain store, which can seem overwhelming. Some stores like this have felt “thin” in terms of selection. That was not the case for me–I found much of interest all over the store that I’ve not read.

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Sales Counter looking toward the Fiction and Literature Area

In addition to a customer-centered approach to business and an atmosphere that invites you to come and stay and find a few new treasures, the store hosts a number of events to draw people from near and far into the store. They host author nights for a number of local authors, poetry nights (which I understand are their biggest draw), a book club (discussing J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy on April 25) and even songwriter spotlights. A big upcoming event, co-sponsored with Bexley Public Library (get tickets through the library’s website via Eventbrite), is a book-signing and meet the author night with The Underground Railroad author Colson Whitehead on April 28.

The store may not offer the discounts you will find at the big chains or online but it offers a knowledgeable and friendly staff, free gift-wrapping, special order service, gift cards, ten percent discounts to book clubs, and a Free Rewards program, offering a $5 gift certificate for every twelve books you purchase, plus a free monthly e-newsletter. They seem dedicated to the kind of service that fosters repeat business.

This is a wonderful addition not only to the mix of businesses on East Main Street near the Capital University campus, but also on the bookselling scene in Columbus. It is neither a secondhand store nor a chain. It is an inviting place that conveys to the reader the message, “we were thinking of you and thought you might enjoy reading this…or this.”  It is a gem that I hope the Bexley community and the broader book-buying public in central Ohio will support. If so, I know that Linda, John, Debra and the rest of the staff will say a “big thanks” (the meaning behind the word “Gramercy”).

Store Hours:

Monday to Friday 10am – 9pm
Saturday 9am – 9pm
Sunday 9am – 5pm

Contact:

614.867.5515
info@gramercybooksbexley.com

Website: http://www.gramercybooksbexley.com/

Address:

2424 E. Main Street
Bexley, OH 43209

How To Be A Bookseller, Inspired by Bernard Black

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Lawrence Hammar, owner of Blue Jacket Books, who epitomizes a great bookseller–nothing like those in this post!

Bookriot posted a hilarious post based on the British series Black Books, on “How to Be a Customer in a Book Shop, According to Bernard Black.” It’s a hoot and you really should take a look at it. I thought, in the same vein, I would post a few tips on How to Be a Bookseller, inspired by Black, and some of the more nefarious booksellers I’ve experienced over the years.

  1. Never acknowledge customers. It only encourages them. They’ll talk to you. They will ask you about books. Listening to the latest NPR podcast is infinitely more important.
  2. Make things hard to find. Don’t label sections. Pile unstocked books in front of shelves so it is difficult to get to them.
  3. Never. Clean. Anything. The book can’t possibly be worth anything if it doesn’t have a fine patina of dust and grime on it. You want your customers to walk out looking like they’ve been in a coal mine. After all, how else will they get their friends to believe they had just come from an antiquarian bookstore?
  4. Persuade all your customers that they really need to buy books from that collection of obscure, mildewed books that you purchased too quickly. Everyone needs a copy of the antebellum best selling Social Etiquette for the Plantation, after all.
  5. Give outrageously high prices to books that have been sitting on your shelves for years and aren’t really worth it. Don’t negotiate. You don’t really want to part with them, do you?
  6. Stay blithely uninformed about what you have on your shelves. After all, you’d really rather be at the beach…or golf course…or pub. How dare customers expect that you’ve read or are actually interested in any of this stuff?

Sorry, I don’t have any videos to go along with these. And the truth is, most of the booksellers I’ve know are not like this at all. They love books, build relationships with their customers, and make their shops places you want to spend time in. They are good hosts who love introducing customers to their books, helping them make new friends, as it were. They turn soulless transactions into rich interactions. Thank goodness they don’t take their inspiration from Bernard Black!

An Amazing Bookstore

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One of the many alcoves at Blue Jacket Books, an amazing store in Xenia, Ohio

Have you had the experience of discovering an amazing bookstore, one that seemed to have any book about anything? There seemed to be miles of shelves, cubby holes where you could curl up with a book, and great bargains on remaindered books–ones you wanted to read when they were full price, except you hadn’t gotten around to it.

In a Literary Hub article I discovered that we have James Lackington to thank for all of this. Lackington opened a store in 1774 in London that revolutionized bookselling to this day. His store, The Temple of Muses, eventually stocked 500,000 volumes. He bought large quantities of remaindered titles and, instead of destroying most of them to drive up the price, he passed the savings on to customers. He had four floors of books with “lounging rooms” for customers. It sounds like it was an incredible place.

I remember my first visit to a Borders store while we were house hunting in Columbus. This was when they were still owned by the Borders brothers. I couldn’t believe the depth of selection in each topic area, there was an amazing sale table, and lots of places to sit and browse your finds, as well as a cafe so that you could do it all drink in hand. All the things Lackington figured out made a great bookstore were present.

Now Borders is gone. There is only one major brick and mortar bookseller to speak of. More and more, the selection is limited to either the most significant or most current books in a genre. The only “everything” store is online. But there are still some great stores around the country such as Powell’s or BookPeople who still approximate this ideal. And the second hand stores, particularly some of the Half Price Books stores provide the opportunity for finding great bargains and unusual books. There are some independents as well, some in out of the way places like Blue Jacket Books in Xenia, Ohio that approximate this ideal.

I find myself wondering if a generation from now, people will still have the jaw-dropping experience of walking into a huge bookstore that seems to stock everything, where there are miles of aisles and shelves to explore on every conceivable topic. I also wonder if we will foster a culture that values such places. But there is the wonderful experience of finding your favorite section, and leisurely reading down the shelves of books and making those serendipitous finds that a logarithm or a heuristic might not predict because it only goes off your past history, and not your future interests, the ones that may be awakened by a title, a book cover, or a table of contents. It is a cultural good I hope we do not lose.

I do feel fortunate because in our city, Columbus, while we don’t have any “temples” to books, we have some pretty interesting stores. Some, like the Book Loft in German Village, with its 32 rooms over a couple floors, or the Half Price store on Lane Ave that sprawls and winds through a couple connected buildings get kind of close to Lackington’s ideal. A while back I wrote a post about bookstore crawling in Columbus. If you ever come through, I hope you will come visit some of my favorite places and help keep them alive!

I’d love to hear about your amazing bookstore experiences, so I can visit if I ever come through your town!

Does Barnes & Noble Need to Think Like an Indie?

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Barnes & Noble former flagship store, closed in 2014. By Beyond My Ken (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses-SA/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Barnes & Noble just fired their CEO, Ron Boire, hired just over a year ago, as sales figures for the chain continue to decline, attributed to store closings, poor NOOK sales, and declines in sales at BN.com. At the same time, Barnes & Noble is experimenting with “concept stores” with larger cafés that serve alcohol.

I wonder if Barnes & Noble needs to start thinking much more like the indie booksellers, who are actually opening stores, seeing at least modest sale increases and are surviving the greatly exaggerated “death of reading.” First of all, I don’t think they are ever going to compete with the uber online bookseller. That despite the fact that BN.com has, in my opinion a much cleaner look and integrates well with its local stores, where you can order an item to be reserved in your local store (if it is in stock) and pick it up in an hour. Prime Now, which involves a Prime subscription and will deliver in two hours to homes in many areas has very limited selections in books eligible for such delivery, although they offer many other items not available through BN.com.

From all I can tell, indie booksellers work hard to draw people into their stores, particularly repeat customers. It seems that there are several key components to this:

  • Quality service from booksellers who love books. These are people who help you find a book, call you when a book you might like is in their store, and recommend books that fit your reading tastes. There are some of us who find the human touch much more appealing than an algorithm. I have to admit, the booksellers I’ve dealt with at our local Barnes & Noble stores have fit this description in many regards, although it seems I rarely deal with the same person twice.
  • Author events. Surveying our local Barnes & Noble store websites, only one of the stores in my area had any author events scheduled. This store had three posted between August 18 and mid-November 2016. The other events at all stores were events for children–a lot of events for children. I will give them credit for encouraging youthful readers, but what about events for teen readers, for young adult readers, for graphic novel readers? What about events for plain old adult readers?
  • Host book clubs and help launch and source community-based groups. According to a Publishers Weekly article, such groups have been an important part of indie stores bottom line. I could not find any evidence of efforts to encourage book clubs on local Barnes & Noble store websites, nor have I seen this in stores.
  • Host other fun reading events. Admittedly some stores have capitalized on parties around the latest Harry Potter release. Silent reading parties have become trendy in some places, a place to go and read quietly with others, perhaps with wine and cheese (which may be part of the idea for stores serving alcohol and having expanded cafés).
  • Use the web and social media not just to sell stuff but to relate to customers. Many indie stores, particularly used and rare stores in out-of-the-way places have a significant percentage of sales online. I think of one store I’ve ordered from on several occasions in an out-of-the-way part of eastern PA whose owner I’ve interacted with regularly via blogs and Facebook because of shared book interests. I’m a customer because of those interactions and even promote (with no personal benefit) his store on this site.
  • Give managers and booksellers a stake beyond just keeping their jobs. For indie sellers, this is their livelihood, lucrative or not. I could not ascertain from online searching whether Barnes & Noble provides any kind of sales or profit-sharing incentives. With that, I would also give a certain amount of creative latitude to these folks to market to their particular community’s needs and interests. There should be rewards for creativity and hard work beyond salaries or hourly wages, if it benefits the bottom line.

I don’t know what to say about Nook. It strikes me as the Betamax of the e-reader world–superior in many respects to Kindle in both hardware and software aspects, but a loser in the marketplace. Part of the challenge is the leveling off and decline of e-sales in general. Unless they can create the marketing cachet enjoyed by Apple products by combining elegance and technology innovations, I personally think they need to cut their losses and support existing e-readers and users of their phone and tablet apps.

I’d like to see Barnes & Noble make it. They occupy a niche distinctive from used bookstores as the only seller of a deep and wide selection of new books physically accessible in many communities. I just hope that they will decide to focus significant attention on the core of their business, and not just on fancier cafés. The indie sellers seem to understand that outstanding customer service and relations are key to their survival. I hope Barnes & Noble has not gotten too big to understand the same.

Bookstores as Safe Spaces

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Publishers Weekly posted an article yesterday titled When a Bookstore is Also a Safe HavenThe writer, an independent bookstore owner proposed the idea that for many, bookstores serve as safe havens during times of national or personal crisis. She wrote about the instinctive sense during 9/11 that her store in Utah be open, and it was packed. It’s not always that people want to buy books, but they want some place where it is safe to process, with oneself or others–patrons and booksellers.

I hadn’t thought of bookstores in this way until I remembered that on 9/11 I was in Cleveland for a funeral of a friend and between gatherings, and after the news broke, I had a few free hours. Where did I go? A bookstore. I drank coffee, followed the news, called home, and tried along with the others who I’d never met to wrap my mind around the truth that our world had changed on that sunny September day.

I’ve noticed that some of my favorite stores are those where the booksellers and many of the patrons know each other. It’s kind of like Cheers where everybody knows your name. Yet I hesitate with this as well. I don’t go to bookstores for a social life, or a confessional. I go for books. Sometimes, I’m a bit creeped out if a stranger gets too friendly, and as an older guy, I don’t want to be that person either! I ordinarily find my social life with family, work, and my church, and some other long time friends.

The article writer notes how stores, particular those who cater to particular communities, may serve as a hub at a time of crisis, as was an LGBTQ store during the Orlando club shootings. For others, there is a greater safety than in a church or a bar. I do find that some stores, particularly if they provide places to read or work with a beverage in hand, often develop a regular clientele who form a kind of community.

They also provide a place to help us try to make sense of what has happened, both in conversations and with books (a way us readers often try to make sense of the world.) As you know, I’ve been an advocate for the value of brick and mortar stores as “third places” as well as for the level of service they provide, particularly as they become to their patrons tastes. This article took it a step further, suggesting they provide a vital public service in times of crisis. In our scary times, perhaps that is something we should value and preserve. I’m glad there was a place like that on 9/11.

Bookstore Review: Half Price Books Online

New   Used Books  Textbooks  Music   Movies   Half Price Books

Screenshot of HPB.COM taken 7/12/16

I’ve been a customer of Half Price Books going back into the 1990’s. They have six stores in my city and we’ve been to them all. They are the source of a number of the books, vinyl, and CDs we’ve purchased, and also a place where we’ve sold these items. Recently, I’ve received emails about their online bookstore, HPB.COM, touting a “new” online presence.

This makes sense of some things we’ve seen in their physical stores. It used to be that all you saw on merchandise was a little price sticker. Increasingly, these have been replaced with barcode labels, with adhesive that makes them not easy to remove at times (a subject for a separate post sometime!). Essentially, with the right IT work, this creates the capacity for them to have over 120 warehouses scattered across the country, and to be open to book buyers from everywhere, all the time, and not just those who walk through the door. If Amazon is indeed getting into the brick and mortar book store business, Half Price, one of the more successful brick and mortar sellers, is going after the online market.

So how have they done? Here are some of my impressions as I’ve looked around the website. First of all, when one goes to the home page, you are welcomed to the “new HPB.COM.” As you mouse over this you can “start shopping” immediately or move the banner to the right or left and see other featured promotions going on either online or at their stores, including their current city-wide clearance sales. Clicking on “start shopping” takes you to featured best sellers of the week, new releases, rare finds, staff picks, books made into movies, and a special HPB collection, which has changed at least once already today. You can also scroll down the home page to see boxes featuring bestsellers, various news items about Half Price Books, staff picks, and more.

Across the top of the page is a drop down menu bar allowing you to go to various pages for books, movies and TV, music, textbooks, rare finds, as well as a “gift card” and an “about” page. Each of the first four drop downs provides links to popular categories, customer favorites, and “superbuys” by price. Just below that menu bar is a search box that allows you to search for a particular title or category.

And this is where it gets interesting because it will give you a featured search result and price, usually for a Half Price store somewhere in the country, and then below, a “marketplace” that includes other places where the item is for sale, not only other Half Price outlets, but also other online “third party” sellers. Prices can sometimes be very low, less than $1, depending on the book, but you should be aware that there is a $3.99 shipping fee for each item, plus sales tax if you are in a state where Half Price does business. Even so, it may be possible to find things at a lower price than at other online sellers, but I would compare, and look at user ratings.

One feature I wish the site had that I could not find, even though I searched for my favorite local store, was the capability to find out if the item was at that store. You can if you scroll down a list of all the available items but you will not be taken there directly. What you can do once you locate your local store is find out about events, staff picks, meet the manager, and more, which is a nice feature.

I did not find anything here that made this my “go to” site for buying books online. But I should add the caveat that I really prefer brick and mortar stores in most instances. I would also say that HPB.COM needs to do work on its connection with Google searches. For example, I searched a book I recently received, Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura. It can be found on the HPB.COM site but searching online it does not show up on the first five pages of a Google search, where it is listed with a number of online sellers as well as at the publisher’s site. Even adding the term “Half Price Books” or “HPB” will only take you to the HPB.COM homepage.

My sense is that the industrious and adventuresome will find some good deals here, and hopefully have a good customer experience. I do think it is an interesting site to see what others are writing about books, including current bestsellers or new releases. Having watched Half Price over 20 years, it also wouldn’t surprise me that they continue to enhance this site. But I think I will continue to do my own book-buying at my local favorite HPB, or at a handful of other local or out of town bookstores I order or purchase from, along with using Amazon for something I need quickly. But that reflects as much as anything my love for the serendipity of visiting a store and finding something interesting that you weren’t looking for. But I’ve bookmarked the site–and you never know!

Have you ordered from HPB.COM? What was your experience?