It Looks Like a Hard Winter for Bookstores

It was global news in the book world. The owner of the venerable Strand Bookstore in New York City recently made an emergency plea for the store. Revenue was down 70 percent. Since then, nearly 25,000 orders flooded in approaching $200,000 in sales, crashing the website (although that is only $8 an order if correct).

If my friends at Bob on Books on Facebook are any indication, there is trouble ahead if the pandemic continues. Bottom line: out of 133 comments on a recent question about this, only 5 people indicated they were comfortable going to bookstores on a regular basis (usually where masking was strictly enforced). One person who worked in a bookstore reported a steep drop in customers, but those who came in bought more and puzzles and games were especially popular.

Some are doing curbside pickups. But this takes away the browsing experience and those serendipitous discoveries that you can only make when browsing. We made two trips to our local Half Price Books about six weeks ago, sold a lot of books and bought some. Then infection rates in Ohio nearly tripled. Hanging out waiting for books to be priced somehow doesn’t seem as safe.

A lot of people are obtaining their books through libraries, either by reserving books or downloading digital books. I wouldn’t be surprised if e-book sales have surged because many are buying books online this way. Or they are ordering from online sellers, mainly Amazon or Thriftbooks for used, or a handful of other online sellers. A very small number ordered from local bookstores or online services connected to local stores like bookshop.org.

Then there are the people who came prepared for the pandemic. They have TBR piles that will see them through a year or more of not bookbuying. If this group of booklovers is at all representative of the book buying public, then bookstores are in trouble.

I fear it will only get worse as the rates of infection rise in the U.S. It appears to me that many of us have imposed our own lockdowns–we don’t need a government to do it for us. We really would love to spend time browsing our favorite stores, if they are open. But we really don’t want to update our wills for a bookstore hop. Many indie stores are smaller, cozy affairs. In ordinary times that is inviting. Now it feels kind of dangerous.

It is nothing short of miraculous if your favorite bookseller is not hurting or in danger of going out of business. Like the Strand, Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, facing new lockdowns and an 80% drop in sales has put out a similar plea for online orders. The big, famous stores can do this. Your local indie may not have the same media clout. But their situation is the same or worse, if news stories and personal accounts are any indication.

If you are able, now is a good time to plan your winter reading, stock up on the new releases and old standbys that you have wanted to read. It’s not too early to shop for books to send to friends for Christmas. Maybe you can set up a virtual book club for the winter months with some friends and all order your books from the same store. The point? Amazon is fine and will be around when this is all over. But what about your beloved store?

Maybe one of the best ways to get your mind off your own survival over the next months is to think about how you can help your favorite store survive. Maybe you can talk them up as the place where you get the books you love. Post about them on your social media (as I do about my favorite store on this blog). Or give a gift card or certificate to friends for Christmas, providing the store an immediate cash infusion. You might also give the store some new customers. You might even send the store owner a holiday card with a little something extra stashed inside.

The day will come when we can resume all the normal things we did before the pandemic. When the day comes when we feel safe visiting our favorite stores again (and I know we define “safe” differently), will their doors be open or will we encounter an “out of business” sign or an empty storefront? It’s up to us.

Time to Support Your Indie Bookstore

hearts and minds

Hearts and Minds Bookstore, from their Facebook page

In the past week, there have been massive closures–schools, restaurants, libraries, and even bookstores. Even if stores are open, many are not visiting as part of their efforts to physically distance themselves from infection.

Hundreds of indies around the country have closed either voluntarily or by government mandate. During this time, their only source of revenue are online orders (some stores can also offer in-store or even curbside pickups).

As it turns out, the demands on Amazon for essential supplies of medical and household goods have resulted in them deciding not to sell “non-essential” items like books, other than current stock, at least for a time.

Of course, books to a healthy bibliophile are not a “non-essential.” It could even be argued that they are an essential to health when we are basically “sheltering in place.”

This is one of those instances where our need to read and our favorite bookstore’s need for revenue converge. Most provide for online ordering. Many even answer the phone without any phone tree to go through. You can make a human connection amid physical distancing! That in itself is worth any extra cost.

One of my favorite indies is Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, a small town in east central Pennsylvania. I have never actually been there and it is on my bucket list of places to visit. I read (and review) a good deal of religion and theological books in the Christian tradition, and Hearts and Minds is my “go to” bookseller. The store focuses on thoughtful books (hence their name) that connect Christian faith with every aspect of life, as well as other quality literature. Their selection of books and my interests align really well. They’ve been able to send me anything I ask for, always carefully packaged, arriving in perfect condition. They do a regular review of new books called “BookNotes,” and always offer a 20% discount on any book featured

I mentioned wanting to visit. Right now, I cannot. They have been closed by the state. I want to see them around when this emergency is over. For indie bookstores, this is not a given. Even when they run in the black, it is often by a precariously thin margin. I saw a new work in BookNotes I am interested in. After I finish this post, I’m going to go online and purchase it.

What if everyone did this with their favorite indie in the next week? And when you finish what you’ve purchased, do it again. It might just help them hang on.

But I read e-books or listen to audiobooks, you say. It turns out that that through IndieBound, which connects a community of indie bookstores, you can order e-books and audiobooks through many indie stores, and possibly yours. I realize you also have a selection of these at many libraries who are also only doing digital lending at this time.

As we have means, it makes sense during this time to ask what businesses matter to us that we want to support, including bookstores. Many of us are still adjusting to this state of affairs. Hopefully in the next few months, this thing will end. Will our favorite businesses, including the bookstores who sell what we like to read, still be there when we can get out and about again? It’s really up to us.

Website Review: Thriftbooks

Thriftbooks

Screen capture of homepage, accessed 3/28/19

I generally am an advocate of brick and mortar bookstores, as you may know from following this blog. Where possible, I like to buy new books, which helps support these stores and also the authors, who don’t receive royalties on used books, and rarely on remaindered ones. Brick and mortar stores may not always offer the best bargains, but they enrich the fabric of a community and provide employment and local taxes.

At the same time, buying new books can be expensive. Three hardbacks may cost $100 or more at today’s prices. The book has to be one I want to keep to justify that price. Mass market paperbacks are still generally under $10, and quality paperbacks $15-20 or more, but even those prices add up quickly. Used booksellers can often help take a bite out of this cost, but remember that neither publisher nor author are benefiting from your purchase. One upside–you are recycling!

The other issue is that there are often particular editions you might look for to complete a set, or there are books that are out of print. Here, online booksellers such as AbeBooks or Alibris are good alternatives to that mammoth online bookseller. Recently at the Bob on Books Facebook Page (you are welcome to like us!) I asked people about their experiences of buying used books online and discovered I must be the last person on the planet not to know about Thriftbooks. One person wrote, “Thriftbooks is the bees knees.” With such an enthusiastic endorsement, I could not fail to take a look.

Here’s what I found. The homepage to the website works well to connect one to all the features on the site. There is a search bar that allows you to search by title, author, or ISBN. I found that entering the first part of the author’s name brought up a list that allowed me to search the author’s book quickly. One of the things you will notice is that you are not buying from other booksellers through the site but through Thriftbooks itself. (Thriftbooks also sells through Amazon.)

Just below that is a drop down menu bar that allows you to search by categories, kid’s, young adult, fiction, and collectibles. There is also information about special offers, their phone app (which I haven’t looked at yet), their blog, and information about the company. They’ve expanded from a single warehouse in Washington state in 2004 to warehouses in ten states. They purchase books from charities, which helps the charities, recycle books through sales or sending them to recycling plants, and support various literacy programs, schools, and correctional facility libraries.

They have a sliding banner that features their Thriftbooks deals (an additional 10% off 100,000 titles), a bonus currently on offer for their Reading Rewards program, a feature on women’s books, and a chance to vote in their “novel knockout” program. Below this are featured their bestsellers (all selling from $3.79), trending books, and popular books eligible for their Thriftbooks discount. Between the trending books and the Thriftbook deals is a green bar with links to your orders, your current number of points in your Reading Rewards, and a link to Thriftbook deals.

If you go to the page for any category, you see best sellers, new arrivals, and Thriftbook deals for that category. Under Collectibles, you can see New Arrivals, First Editions, and Signed Books. When you click on a book, you are taken to a page for that book offering various price options for the book depending on hardcover, paperback, mass market paperback, and audio and prices by condition. There is also a link to view all the editions of the book.

It is easy to set up an account, which involves providing your name, email, and a password. Click on the Reading Reward link in your profile to enroll in the Reading Rewards program. It allows you to earn points for each dollar you spend (as well as periodic bonuses depending on how many books you read). When you earn 500 points, you get a free book. Starting out, you get 8 points for each dollar. When you spend more than $100 in a year, you graduate to “Literati,” where you earn 10 points.

So I did try out ordering. I ordered a few James Lee Burke books, and the next couple books in the Wheel of Time series that I haven’t read. It was pretty standard for most websites: shopping cart, provide shipping info, and credit card or Paypal. Standard shipping is free with orders over $10 (within the U.S.). Because they do not do business in my state, they do not charge sales tax (which may be up to you to report). It is supposed to take 4 to 8 business days. We’ll see how it goes. I received an immediate order confirmation via email, as well as a 15% discount coupon code for my next order.

If you want to try them out, here is a link to a free book offer (yes, I do get a discount if you order!). So depending on your budget and book buying needs, you might give them a try.

Summing it all up:

Strengths: Inventory, low prices, rewards program, collectibles, overall ease of navigation and use, and the social responsibility of the company.

Downsides: Not the place to find newly released books. These are used books in most cases. It does not connect you to or support brick and mortar booksellers, used or new, nor authors.

Blue Jacket Books Moving in a Different Direction

IMG_2381

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!

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?