Small Town Bookstore With BIG Ideas

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    By Laura Hansen

    Laura Hansen is owner/manager of Bookin' It in Little Falls, Minnesota, a store that she describes as "among the smallest of the small bookstores, operating in a community of only 7,500" and devoting 1,800 square feet to retail floor space. Here she explains how even a small store in small town should "never underestimate your market. Expect the unexpected customer even when no one expects the unexpected of you."

    You should see them when they enter the store for the first time, the newcomers -- arms crossed, eyes full of doubt -- prepared to be bored, determined to be unimpressed.

    Many are moving here for a new job or a spouse's job, moving here from a larger community, some metropolitan area where they had access to everything -- arts, sports, malls, and all the "best" (read here "big") stores. Some enter haughtily and others enter timidly, displaying only the weakest hope that the presence of a bookstore, even a small no-name bookstore, may mean that they are not committing themselves to life in a cultural backwater.

    The moment I love the most is when they find the cookbook section of the store and open their mouths into a nice round "O" and turn to me to say (somewhat incredulously), "You have vegetarian cookbooks!" That is when they know they have found their home away from home, the place where they will meet and be met. That is when they find relief from their nagging doubts about life in the proverbial small town. At that moment, they know they will not be alone and that their intellectual needs will be met.

    Others are tourists passing through town or visiting family. They have long since cast off their small town roots and now consider themselves educated and well traveled. Again, they enter with no expectations, almost as if they are waiting to point out our meager stock, our small town small store inadequacies. Often, they refuse to make eye contact, and, always, they sprinkle their conversations liberally with B's and N's and have-you-reads. They quiz us endlessly as if to prove our reading standards couldn't possibly live up to their standards.

    This is where the more eclectic stock choices are our forte. Imagine the surprise as one of these browsers comes across a copy of an obscure title like The Great Hedge of India about India's long-lost shrubbery version of China's Great Wall. You can see the light turn on in their eyes and the slow reevaluation of who we are as booksellers and as readers. I love this moment. At last, they begin to make conversation with us and, hopefully, they buy.

    The moral here, if there is one, is to never underestimate your market. Expect the unexpected customer even when no one expects the unexpected of you. There is a tightrope to be walked at all times between knowing what "will never sell here" and trying to have a book for every possible interest. If you take no risks at all, then your store will be boring and those prized tourist dollars will walk right back out the door. On the other hand, if you try to do everything you will sink under the burden of your oversized inventory.

    One way we cope with this conundrum is to set up temporary specialty displays on topics that we don't usually stock heavily (beekeeping, stargazing, native writers, armchair travels, nature crafts, the art of writing). We make sure that these displays are visually interesting and bring in lots of props (from home and on loan from other stores to keep down costs) to make them really stand out. After the display has been up a month or so, we merge the new books into the shelves and let them sell down over time, leaving the thought behind in our customers mind that we stock (and therefore special order as well) books in that special area of interest.

    One of our marketing lines is "The Small Town Bookstore With BIG Ideas." What this means for me is that we believe in doing everything with class and panache and professionalism. No, our funds are not unlimited. On the contrary, we hover too often on the edge of financial collapse, but I refuse to let that change my view of what I want the store to be -- friendly yet professional, homey yet culturally eclectic, sophisticated yet locally sensitive. A big order for a small store, but our community and our customers deserve the best we have to offer.