It's Not About the Bus

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    In a new grassroots effort to support independent booksellers, Larry Portzline, a part-time teacher, has developed the concept of "Bookstore Tourism," a term he coined (and trademarked). The goal of Bookstore Tourism, according to Portzline's Web site (www.bookstoretourism.com), is "to encourage book-lovers across the United States to organize day-trips to cities and towns with interesting, fun, and unique bookstores that folks in their own communities may not be able to visit regularly."

    Portzline's first excursion began in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where on Saturday, July 12 at 5:00 a.m., 45 early-rising, book-loving people boarded a chartered bus headed for New York City's Greenwich Village. On the way, Portzline stood at the front of the bus with a microphone and talked about the bookselling industry -- how Hillary Clinton and J.K. Rowling have given booksellers a reason to celebrate over the past couple of months; the competition between the independents and the mega-stores and online chains; and other issues.

    Once in Manhattan, the group was dropped off in the Village with a map of 18 recommended stores in the area. The tour then divided into smaller parties and set out on foot to different bookstores of their choice, visiting a selection of stores from the map, which included a short description of each bookstore.

    Portzline told BTW that, although he has nothing against chain stores, he's more interested in supporting independents because he believes that "a lot of towns already have the chain stores, so why not go somewhere different and special? Why not visit bookstores that are unique to the city you're visiting?" On Portzline's Web site he illuminates the "countless reasons to visit independent bookstores," where he mentions knowledgeable staff, diversity of selection, and other characteristics.

    The booksellers on Portzline's tour loved the idea of Bookstore Tourism, and some were surprised it hadn't been done sooner. Tobias Cox of Three Lives & Company said that he could recognize tour members, who arrived holding Portzline's map and big bags from The Strand bookstore. "It was a lot of fun," he said. "Lots of people came in looking around, checking out our store. Some people bought books."

    Cox also mentioned that the book tour idea would probably work best as Portzline arranged it, bringing people in from another city. Manhattanites, he thought, might not be as interested in the tour, but, he said, "bringing people from a city where they don't have as many bookstores, that's what makes it work."

    A block or two away from Three Lives, at Partners & Crime, the day manager, Steve Viola, said that people from the tour dropped in all day long, four or five at a time, and that "everyone who came in bought something." He sold mostly "cozies," which he defined as "mysteries that are 'who-dunnits' rather than about blood and gore." Viola added that the tour definitely increased sales for the day.

    The tour-goers themselves, who paid $99 for the day, including dinner in New Jersey at a restaurant facing Manhattan's skyline, were eager to do it again. Many said they wanted to sign up friends and relatives. Portzline's next trip to New York City, scheduled for September 27, is already booked. He also has a November 1 trip planned, which has not yet been filled.

    Portzline said that the group "bought a total of about 200 books, some bought tons, others just a few. I don't know what the average cost was per book, but if you figure just $12, that comes to about $2,400 in total book purchases. It actually could have been a lot more because from what I saw, most people bought new books as opposed to used. So I think $2,400 is a pretty conservative estimate."

    Portzline said he's not entirely shocked by the success of the tour. "I'm not surprised that book-lovers are crazy about the idea and are clamoring to be a part of it," he said. "But I have been somewhat surprised by the expressions of support and thanks I've received from booksellers all across the country. It's been very flattering to experience this groundswell of excitement about it.

    "I was actually afraid some might react negatively that someone who isn't part of the industry would just sweep in and offer up a new marketing concept, or that they'd be suspicious of me saying that it's free for anyone to use. There's no catch to it, and I'm not trying to make a buck. Some ideas just need to be shared without any expectation for something in return."

    But the most satisfying thing about Bookstore Tourism, said Portzline was "seeing everyone pile off the bus late that night with smiles on their faces and carrying big bags of books to their cars….What book-lover doesn't love walking into an unfamiliar independent bookstore and getting lost between the shelves?" -- Karen Schechner