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Small but mighty: Booksellers adapt to meet customer demand

By Sarah Olson

Published September 24, 2020
Last updated September 24, 2020

You could say that books are having a moment right now. With more people looking for solitary entertainment (and perhaps escape), as well as the rise of the anti-racist reading list, local booksellers are experiencing a “whirlwind,” as one bookseller puts it.

Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, says the store (which has three locations in the Bay Area) has made more in sales this year than in the past 12 years combined.

Meanwhile, book printers can’t reprint popular titles fast enough. Print book sales are up more than 5 percent compared to last year, according to the New York Times, and printers are struggling to tackle a growing backlog amidst mounting financial pressure.

Further complicating matters, USPS service delays mean that customers have to wait longer, even when books are in stock and ready to ship.

Print book sales are up more than 5 percent compared to last year, according to the New York Times, and printers are struggling to tackle a growing backlog amidst mounting financial pressure.

Understandably, these delays have been disappointing for customers. Frugal Bookstore, Boston’s only Black-owned bookshop, received a number of “disheartening” comments after being inundated with more than 10,000 orders in the span of a few days, Boston.com reported.

But customers also have a responsibility to consider the larger context, as Massachusetts writer Bradley Babendir pointed out in a widely shared tweet.

The delays are frustrating for customers and booksellers alike, Mulvihill says. Booksellers have little control, and at the same time, it’s more important than ever to maintain good relationships with customers.

[Related read: How not to be an asshole when talking to customer service]

How booksellers are connecting with customers

In the midst of so many challenges, Green Apple Books is finding success by remaining flexible and being open to new ideas.

“We tried a ton of different things, and whatever people glommed onto and worked well, we focused on,” Mulvihill says, “It’s been constant pivoting and adapting and shifting and reacting and experimenting.”

[Related read: How to pivot in the face of change]

According to Mulvihill, these are a few of the tactics that have stuck:

  • Staying in touch with customers
    This has always been important, Mulvihill says, but now Green Apple has to be more creative to keep up with demand. The team has reinvented their processes and are adopting new tools that allow them to collaborate remotely on customer issues. Meanwhile, they’ve increased their social media engagement to share new releases, virtual events, and sometimes, just a moment of levity.
  • Giving customers the option to pitch in
    In the early days of the pandemic, Green Apple Books received a lot of emails from customers asking how they could help, so they decided to put a donation link on their homepage. With just a simple call to action, they raised over $20,000. They also gave customers the option to cover the cost of shipping, and to their surprise, about half of customers who could have had free shipping decided to take on the extra cost.
  • Engaging the broader community
    Green Apple Books has a loyal following, some of whom continue to support the store even after they move outside San Francisco. Using the custom t-shirt platform Bonfire, the bookstore started selling branded t-shirts, tote bags, and yes, even masks that customers from far and wide can buy to help raise money for the store.

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🍏📚❤️ #Repost @spectrespectacular ・・・ moving to LA doesn’t make me rep @greenapplebooks any less!! 🍏 I’ve been going to Independent Bookstore Day at Green Apple for the past few years and this was the first year I missed it! I’m so sad but I’m hoping soon I can make a general visit! (Pls remember to wear a mask when going to your fave bookstores and also always ✌🏻) • Did anybody go to Independent bookstore day this year? Whether online or in person? What’s your fave local bookstore and who’s your go to buddy?? (mine are @bookbrowsingbear and @katherinezofrea) • [accessibility text: picture of me in a purple shirt and purple hat with an otter on it looking up at the camera wearing a white mask with a green print that reads “Stay home read books” inside a green apple] @booksonthepark @indiebookstoreday #IBD2020 #IndependentBookstoreDay #IndependentBookstoreDay2020 #SanFrancisco #ShopLocal #GreenAppleBooks #LocalBookstores #WearAMask #bookstagram #bookstagrammer #bookshelf #booklover #bookworm #booknerd #bookseverywhere #ilovebooks #booksbooksbooks #bookphotography #bookaddict #readingaddiction #epicreads #readersofinstagram #bibliophile #bookshelfie #bookloversofinstagram #bookish #goodreads #igreads #instagramreads

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“None of these things in and of themselves saved the store,” Mulvihill says, “It’s more about the adaptability and being willing to try different things.”

Using the custom t-shirt platform Bonfire, the bookstore started selling branded t-shirts, tote bags, and yes, even masks that customers from far and wide can buy to help raise money for the store.

Another example is San Francisco’s beloved City Lights Bookstore. Without an ecommerce platform in place, it had to find another way to support the store or risk permanent closure.

City Lights started a fundraiser through GoFundMe, and through the generosity of supporters, raised nearly half a million dollars and were able to reopen the store.

City Lights Books Publisher and CEO said the following on the store’s GoFundMe page:

“Our GoFundMe campaign solicited your help, and your massive response has been utterly astonishing and much appreciated. A multitude of people [are] responding to our call for help, and I want to thank everyone who has donated so generously — old friends, colleagues, and writers and readers everywhere.”

A cause customers can get behind: shopping local

Now booksellers have another tool at their disposal too: A new startup called Bookshop.

Bookshop, an online bookselling platform designed to help raise money for independent bookstores, launched at the end of January 2020, arriving at perhaps the perfect moment.

Sarah High, partnerships manager at Bookshop, says that they’ve had incredible success despite still being in beta.

[Related read: Leading a startup during a pandemic: 5 lessons from 5 founders]

“The business was inundated in a wonderful way because we were able to help so many bookstores at a time when they had to close their doors,” High says.

It has been especially helpful for Black-owned bookstores who were flooded with orders in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and Juneteenth celebrations, according to High. Bookshop helped them manage the demand while still getting a financial boost from the sales.

“Bookshop is a great additional tool for them to have to say, ‘My staff is really overworked right now. Go to my Bookshop page, and you’ll be taken care of,’” she explains. “We’re very excited about helping Black-owned bookstores on our site and across the country.”

It has been especially helpful for Black-owned bookstores who were flooded with orders in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and Juneteenth celebrations.

The way it works is that booksellers can create a Bookshop page for their store and direct customers to buy books via the link. Stores get 30 percent of the cover price on sales they make. Bookstores can also join a profit-sharing pool where Bookshop contributes 10 percent of sales they make on the site.

Bookshop is distinct from the American Booksellers Association, a not-for-profit trade organization that helps local bookstores maintain and grow their business, but they share a common goal: supporting local bookstores.

Since its launch, Bookshop has raised over $6 million to support more than 967 bookstores in their profit-sharing pool.

You can see the running total of dollars raised in a banner running across the top of most pages on the website. Additionally, when customers make a purchase, they can see how much money from their purchase will be given to local bookstores.

These little reminders are a key motivator for Bookshop’s socially conscious customers, according to High.

“People are steering toward: How do I conscientiously buy a book? How do I conscientiously support and not undermine my local small business?” High says.

The next chapter: conscious consumerism

Mulvihill attributes customers’ generosity to an acceleration of the ‘shop local’ movement since the pandemic began.

“People are seeing right now what happens when you stop spending money at your local businesses,” Mulvihill says, “They’re closing, and many of them for good.”

Although major retailers like Amazon and Target have seen record profits during this time, both Mulvihill and High have noticed a shift toward more conscious consumerism.

Additionally, when customers make a purchase, they can see how much money from their purchase will be given to local bookstores. These little reminders are a key motivator for Bookshop’s socially conscious customers, according to High.

The pandemic has been a wake-up call, reminding all of us to take stock and do what we can to help the causes and communities we care about most. For many of us, that means supporting the local businesses we know and love whenever we can.

Customers want to support companies who align with their values. They want to feel like their purchases matter. They want to be part of a movement.

[Related read: Business isn’t always about commerce; it’s about community]

“It never works to slam Amazon. They’re one of the most beloved brands in the country,” Mulvihill says. “But it does work to thank people and remind them of the value we bring to our community.”

Small, independent businesses provide good jobs, keep local economies humming, and serve as a point of pride and enjoyment for residents.

So go ahead: Order a book, splurge on carry-out, or treat yourself to something special from a local shop—your community deserves it.