Award-Winning Bookstore Knows Where to Find the Answers

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Former high school history teacher Robin Allen is a quick study: Within two years of opening Forever Books in 1999 in St. Joseph, Michigan, the bookstore was a finalist for the Pannell Award for Excellence in Children's Bookselling. It was a finalist again the following year and has since racked up numerous other notices, including the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce and six Reader's Choice Awards for "Best Place to Buy Books" from the South Bend Tribune. This winter Midwest Living Magazine will include the bookstore in a "Places Not to Be Missed" feature.

Allen got her start in bookselling when she and a friend were mourning the loss of a small children's bookstore in downtown St. Joseph. Allen said she thought she could run a bookstore, and her friend said, "Why don't you?" Two days later Allen went to her first Great Lakes Booksellers Association fall trade show in Toledo. (She's now a GLBA board member.) The following April she opened Forever Books, a children's specialty store, in a 1920s historic brick building around the corner from where the other store had closed.

Shortly after being nominated for the Pannell for the second time, however, Allen decided to shift the business from a children's bookstore to more of a general bookstore. "It was a gradual change," she said. "We saw that the increase in Scholastic book fairs was cutting into our business, so over a two-year period we switched. Now we're 60 percent adult titles, 40 percent children's. We might go even less with children's, but it's currently a nice mix." The result was about a 25 percent sales boost.

Besides adding adult titles, particularly women's fiction, Allen attributed the increase to St. Joseph's changing outdoor art exhibits, an innovation of the last several years. "One year we had life-size carousel horses, and each was decorated differently," she said. "We had about 80 to 90, and people came from all over to see them. This year we have cars that kids can climb over. One was covered with mosaic, another had an Etch-A-Sketch instead of a radio. At the end of the summer, they're auctioned off for charity."

The 1,700-square-foot store, which is one block from Lake Michigan, still maintains some of the aesthetics of a children's store: there's a flying pterodactyl skeleton; the ceiling is painted to look like the sky; a setting sun is painted on one wall and the moon and stars on another. In the children's area, there's a mural of kids playing on the beach with Allen's late black Labrador retriever swimming in the background.

St. Joseph, which was recently named the most romantic city in Michigan by the Detroit Free Press, has a population of about 9,000, but that number soars in the warmer months. For both visitors and year-round residents, Forever Books hosts book clubs and other special events. One of the busiest is the Book Club Symposium. Three times a year, the store presents 50 titles to about 75 people belonging to area book clubs. Attendees, who must make reservations in advance, receive a 20 percent discount and place their orders for the coming months.

"We require reservations because there just isn't enough space," said Allen. "We pass out our newsletter, along with the Book Sense Picks lists and specialty lists, and a list of the books we'll present." Forever Books staff members make two-minute presentations for eight to 10 books. At the end of the night, customers get a two-year-old ARC ("We wait until the hardcover and paperback have already come out"). Sales for the night are typically around $2,000. "That's a lot for us. We're a small store," said Allen.

Another benefit is that booksellers are that much better at handselling books they've already presented. "The expertise that the staff gains will sell those books that they presented, as well as what other staff have presented," Allen said. "So the [eventual] sales are even higher than what we see at the Book Club Symposium."

To some of her colleagues' surprise, Allen pays her staff to read the books they'll be presenting. In fact, she pays them throughout the year to read approved books. When she talks about this practice during her "Ideas That Work" seminar at GLBA trade shows, there's usually an audible gasp.

"Booksellers can't believe that I pay my staff to read," she said. "But my staff has to read a minimum of one adult fiction, one nonfiction, and one intermediate fiction book a month. The books have to be approved, and they're usually something I'm going to purchase large quantities of, are very popular, or are a midlist treasure that I want to back. If there's something staff can really recommend, they write a review. Instead of selling 10 copies, I'll sell 100. It's really worth it." Allen pays her staff in Book Sense gift cards, $20 for adult titles and $15 for kids.

"When I first started in bookselling I just followed the advice I use to give my students -- You don't have to know all the answers, you just need to know how to find them." She's since acquired a lot more answers and has become a resource herself. "When I began I didn't know how to order a book. I didn't even know what an ISBN was. But I figured I could find out. It was a bit bumpy, and 9/11 almost finished us. But we came back and last year, we had had the best year ever." --Karen Schechner