Independents’ Day

Okay, even those whose daily reading is limited to road signs and that annoying “Crawl” that runs along the bottom of our TV screens have probably (at least) seen the DVD of the movie “You’ve Got Mail!” Hell, it starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan so thanks to these two great actors and a reasonably good (somewhat touching) script we have a nice introduction to the subject of this blog.

The small independent booksellers are getting screwed to their shelves by BIG BOX booksellers, those corporate giants who’ve all but priced (volume, volume, volume) the smaller booksellers out of the marketplace.

So, for the sake of the Tom Hanks character (Mr. Big Bookseller Pants’ viewpoint in the flick) we thought it might be helpful to readers to go to a quintessential independent seller (the Meg Ryan-like store) to remind us what (if anything) makes little “bookers” a viable—-in today’s economic environment—place to shop.

Pat Wilson (our Meg Ryan) manages the Pelican Book Store in Sunset Beach, a beautiful little beach town on the North Carolina coast.

Bob:  Pat, we’ve been to your shop, it’s wedged in an upscale strip mall just off a major beach road, easy access, plenty of parking, etc.  Pelican is a very attractive store with a nice book balance—from the latest bestsellers to older paperbacks. 

Readers can browse the aisles of your small well-kept shop, knowing that you’re perched right there behind the counter ever on the ready to lead them to the latest good read.  That’s all well and good; we love your store but tell us why we should shop the Pelicans of the marketplace as opposed to loading up with a bag of 20 percent off deals at a Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million before heading home or to the beach.

Pat: I think one of the great pluses you’ll find in the independent book store is in the shop’s staff. The person working with you is probably going to be an avid reader. All of our employees read and spend a great deal of time looking for good books to read, keeping an eye out for books for us to recommend.

When you go to one of the cookie cutter stores, a Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble, you are probably going to be waited on by youngsters who are there to draw their paychecks. That’s not the case in the independent. We are a business but we make it our business to help our customers find that special book and typically when we recommend it we’ve read it.

That’s what we do and when you go into one of the Big Boys they often can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. The odds are that they not only haven’t read it they may not even know where to find it

Bob: How about Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other booksellers on-line?

Pat: If you buy it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble on-line you can see their write-ups or reviews, but they have ulterior motives when they give a review.  Then pop-ups on your computer will tell you that if you liked this book then you’ll like another book they’re selling. And that just isn’t always the case.  A lot of that marketing is ridiculous. They don’t have readers, it’s all computer-based and their computers don’t read anything.

Bob: How about pricing, the independent vs. the corporate giant?

Pat: Our prices in this independent and with many independents, well, we discount our hardback bestsellers at 20%. You can’t find a better price anywhere else.  That’s one of the great myths of the independents vs. the big bookstores, and here’s another fact—if you do get it cheaper at one of the big corporate stores . . . for every penny you save there you may double that savings by buying from an independent where the sellers read, care and recommend.

The savings will be in our suggestions because when you leave you haven’t bought a bad book. You can lose every penny you “save” at one of the biggies by buying a bad book! We have a book on our shelf right now that is so good and I haven’t seen it being recommended anywhere. It’s called I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes, and it is so good and we know it because we’ve all read it here.  So we’re selling it and people are leaving with a book that is really, really good. I’ve had people call me back and say, “You were right, it was so good!”

Bob: And oh, we hear that the independent booksellers have an angel; according to a NY Times piece, James Patterson has donated $1,000,000 to help save the independents, saying, “I just want to get people more aware and involved in what’s going on here, which is that, with the advent of e-books, we either have a great opportunity or a great problem. Our bookstores in America are at risk. Publishing and publishers as we’ve known them are at stake. To some extent the future of American literature is at stake.”

Can the Patterson grant make a difference and did any of that cash fly to the Pelican?

Pat: No, but let me say just how much we appreciate the fact that there are so many authors who know that we are out here selling books and the fact that they care about the smaller independents. This is very important to us.

Bob: There are a lot of bad books out there, how do these duds get published?

Pat:  One of the biggest problems with the publishing world right now is simply this:  we don’t have the great editors anymore. And the editors we have aren’t strong enough to tell a bestselling writer that he or she needs to take a piece of the manuscript back and rewrite it.

I’ve read writers that have big names, good writers but you can see that they are writing with big contracts, maybe on a deadline, and, my guess is that they’re beginning to “mail them in!”  And they aren’t being told that they need rewrites.  The editors or publishers are trying to keep their stable of authors happy, ones that name alone will sell the book, writers who have produced bestsellers and so they let them get away with crap.

Bob: Ah, but there are some great books, what are you recommending these days?

Pat: There are some wonderful books, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, The Color of Water by James McBride. Mary Alice Monroe, who often writes about environmental issues, has produced some great beach reading—The Beach House, Beach House Memories and The Summer Girls come to mind

Bob: Like most booksellers, you have signings but you’re often co-hosting with Silver Coast, a local winery. This would appear to be a stroke of marketing genius; I mean a few glasses of wine and a good book, not a bad combination.

Pat: We started working with the Silver Coast Winery when we had a Southern author who we wanted to host, an author who we knew would bring out a big crowd. As you know, we have a small bookstore here at the beach and she was coming to read and sign in mid-season—the summer—and this island almost sinks under the weight of the tourists during the summer.

So we asked the local winery if we could have the reading and signing there and boy did it work. We had over 200 people and so we’ve been doing this ever since. I think it’s about $10 admission which includes two glasses of wine and the opportunity to hear and meet a well- known author. So yes, this isn’t something that you will see at a major chain in a big city—-a winery/reading at the beach—and it’s been quite a success.

Bob:  Any other ways that a smaller bookstore reels in the writers for events like this?

Pat:   Well it occurred to me that one of the reasons we couldn’t get some authors interested in what we were doing was simply the fact that authors want to get their sales numbers up, they have to if they want to get on the NY Times Bestsellers List. That’s just part of the publishing game. So I had to agree to become a contributor to the NY Times bestselling list.

Here’s how that works. We have to fill out and file a report on what books we’ve sold weekly and believe me that’s a job. I’m very lucky, one of the ladies that work for me takes care of that. We have a little scanner and that tracks every book we sell and this list goes to the NY Times, so when you see that Times list that’s real—and they, of course, are working with the smaller stores and, of course, the big chains as well, tracking the sales of books with the result being the list you read in the newspaper. They don’t make up the numbers—so we did that and got a lot of the bigger authors to come as a result.

Bob: I’ve been in your store a number of times and I’m impressed with the way you take the time to talk to your customers, sometimes it appears to be like something my mother would have called, “Old Home Week!”

Pat: We know so many of our customers—we might know that their spouse is sick or we may be chatting with a lonely widower who came in simply because they wanted to talk to someone.

We’re like the bartender without the booze—and sometimes I’m really in the middle of something and you know what I say to myself, “set it aside,” and so I’ll stop and talk. It’s what we do; we have to realize that the conversation is more important than anything else we might be doing at that time.

Bob: I’m sure that your clientele is built on word of mouth, so there must be a lot of regulars.

Pat:  Let me tell you about two of my customers. I have this one customer who is handicapped and he pulls up in his Jaguar and parks in the handicapped spot. Typically, earlier that day he’s called me and said, ‘I need two books to read.’ And we tell him what we’ve got and how much it will be. When he pulls up there we take the books out to him and he hands us a check and we hand him his books. Again, he’s disabled and it’s too much trouble for him to get into the store.

And I have another fellow who lives here in North Carolina, about four or five hours away and he writes me letters. He’s often writing something doing research and so he’ll want books on subjects as diverse as clowns, comedians, or Negro baseball leagues.

I find them, order them if we don’t have them in stock, and mail them to him. He sends us a check.  After the last shipment I got a letter from his wife who wrote to say, “Keep it up it’s just like Christmas when his books arrive in the mail.”

So the job can be very gratifying!

Bob: I know that marketing can be the key to keeping the cash register ringing, any other areas of sales that help keep an independent afloat?

Pat: We trade used books for used books and so if you bring in a book I will give you X amount of credit—there’s a formula—toward the purchase of another one. Now I don’t take just anything, I have to think that it’s good for a resale, but people here at the beach are looking for used books because people don’t want to take a new or a good book out on the beach—and they don’t’ want to take their e-books or readers on the beach. So this location is great for selling used books, you can’t really take an e-book out on the beach and read it in that bright sunlight, and then there’s the issue of sand, sun, water which can be harmful to a nice hardback or e-book.

Oh, we also ship for people, we’re a UPS pick up and around the second week in December it gets crazy around here. We’ll Xerox for our customers, fax, print, all ways to keep the numbers up.

Bob: As to actual product, is this just book sales at the Pelican or do you have other “impulse” items that might appeal to your clients?

Pat: Well, we sell a ton of jigsaw puzzles.  Another natural tie-in item is greeting cards and we have great photo cards—from the beach. The photos are taken by a fellow who lives out here on the island and we also have some cards that are painted by a North Carolina artist and he does the poetry (inside) and they are different and unique—designed for customers who are living or visiting the beach.

And our “beachie” Christmas cards are big because if people live at the beach they want everyone to know they live at the beach. So we have to hunt for these specialty cards, there’s a little publisher/printer in Southport that I buy my Christmas cards from and they are  very popular with our customers, very unique.

Bob:  You are a small independent at the beach, how seasonal IS your business?

Pat:   Our business here is unique in that it spikes on July 4th, that’s our crescendo. It starts in late April and builds all the way to the 4th of July and by the 4th the island if sinking from all the people that are here for the beach.

Oh, we have a bump before Christmas and I always work Christmas Eve because (laughs) that day we have all these 50-year-old “children” coming in to see their retired parents, “kids” who have forgotten to get enough gifts or any gifts. So this place is a madhouse on Christmas Eve.

Bob: Well it isn’t Christmas Eve but we know you have customers waiting so we’ll close by asking you to tell any and all potential book buyers out there just what kind of person they’ll likely be dealing with when they shop an independent like the Pelican.

Pat:  Well if they’re like the Pelican and like me and my staff, they are people who love people—all kinds of people—and I tell them you aren’t my customers you are my friends, and I mean that. We love the store and I think that’s what people are attracted to. They get it, it comes across, we care for our customers and our store and we put every book in a special place, our books live in certain places. Sometimes people will say. “Well what’s the order of your books? Why is that one over there?” And I say, “Well it lives there because that’s where it’s always lived!”

I don’t have the heart to move them. Like I said, we are not Barnes & Noble, we don’t have huge sections, we put books in certain places because we think that’s where our books should live

Bob: I better go, this IS beginning to sound like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, by the way what did you think of that movie, did Hollywood get the independent vs. the big conglomerate bookstore issues right?

Pat (laughs): Well they got the story right. But I’ll close with this thought as it applies to the independent bookseller; Meg Ryan should have never given up!

* To visit Pat and the Pelican go to: