Bookstore Tourism, and what it can mean for booksellers and their communities, was the subject of a panel at last month's BookExpo America moderated by Larry Portzline, the founder of the nonprofit National Council on Bookstore Tourism and author of Bookstore Tourism: The Book Addict's Guide to Planning & Promoting Bookstore Road Trips for Bibliophiles & Other Bookshop Junkies (Bookshop Junkie Press). Panelists were New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association Vice President Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania; Southern California Booksellers Association President Terry Gilman of Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego; Nancy Rips of the Bookworm Bookstore in Omaha, Nebraska; and Len Vlahos, the director of the American Booksellers Association's education program, as well as director of BookSense.com.
Portzline, a writer and college instructor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and a self-proclaimed book addict, explained how he began the Bookstore Tourism movement with a bookstore road trip to New York City in 2003, sponsored by the Community Education Center of Harrisburg Area Community College. The success of his initial trips to New York led Portzline to expand the tours to other cities and to begin promoting the concept through his how-to book and a website, www.bookstoretourism.com.
On the bus trips from Harrisburg, Portzline provides travelers with a map of the area's independent bookstores. Upon arrival at their destination, he explained, the group disperses, and some booklovers visit just two or three stores and others go to as many as 18 to 20. What is common to all of them, however, is that they all return home having purchased bags full of books.
Any community can develop, and benefit from, a Bookstore Tourism program, according to Portzline. In addition to raising the visibility of independent bookstores, Bookstore Tourism provides economic development benefits for the originating locale, as well as for the destination city and its independent businesses.
Chester County Book Company's Drabyak noted that on one trip a group led by Portzline spent $3,000 at his store and an additional $1,800 at a used bookstore, Baldwin's Book Barn. The tour included lunch at Chester County Books with bestselling author Lisa Scottoline and a visit to the nearby Pearl S. Buck House.
"We would all like to have somebody walk into our store and spend that kind of money," Drabyak said, adding that, because of the trip's success, he is planning to create similar Bookstore Tourism events and to include another independent bookshop, which recently opened in the area.
SCBA's Gilman explained how a recent survey of members revealed that they wanted the association to focus its efforts on doing more to educate consumers about independent booksellers. "We wanted to get the word out in as many ways as possible that there are independent bookstores that are unique and have something to offer, and we wanted to help to grow bookstores in our region," Gilman said. SCBA has since sponsored three bookstore trips in Los Angeles and San Diego, which have each visited five or six bookstores. The trips include an author event and refreshments at every store, as well as lunch and some additional programming.
"It's fun for all of us, and our customers love it," Gilman said. "Every time I see one of my customers who have been on the tours, they want to know when the next one is." On the economic advantages, she explained, "Sales at any given bookstore that we visited were up 15 to 25 percent that day."
Noting that booklovers pay $50 apiece to go on the SCBA tours, Gilman told the audience that all of the travelers get "about a $75 value out of it," including a "goodie bag" with items provided by publishers. "The publishers love it," she said. "They'll give us books and bookmarks and all kinds of promotional materials for the goodie bags."
For the past several years, Omaha Bookworm's Rips, who is also a local television station book reviewer, has worked with a local travel agent to organize fall literary tours to Manhattan. The price of these excursions, which includes airfare, overnight stays at a hotel in the city, and a variety of book-themed events, ranges around $1,500 for each of the approximately 25 people on the trip. Rips told the audience that she does not make money organizing these tours, but rather "breaks even."
Events featured on some of the tours include browsing at New York bookstores, a tour of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, a walking tour of literary landmarks in Greenwich Village, a New York Times author brunch, tickets to a Broadway show (this year, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), and a yacht cruise around Manhattan Island, complete with gourmet dinner.
As for organizing trips that take booklovers outside of the local community, Drabyak explained, "You're developing community. Those people ... talk passionately about the books they love. It's just like the book clubs that might meet in your store. These people will start thinking about your location as a community center for booklovers. Even though the dollar may seem to go elsewhere, you're developing customer loyalty. You're developing an identity for your store. You're developing character for your store, and it's a service you're providing for them. So it will come back to you."
Noting that ABA's Book Sense marketing program was created to recapture some of the 12 out of 20 books that consumers don't buy at independent bookstores, Vlahos told the audience, "Bookstore Tourism is another way to do that -- to get groups of customers to come to your stores to buy books instead of buying them elsewhere."
Bookstore Tourism, said Vlahos, can "help consumers understand that these stores -- while being completely unique and independent -- share a set of attributes ... passion, personality, character, knowledge, and community." He also noted that bookstore tours provide a good opportunity for booksellers to stress the financial benefits to the community of shopping at local independents versus chain stores.
Vlahos concluded by asking anyone who organizes a bookstore trip to contact ABA so the association can start gathering data on Bookstore Tourism to put together a package showing how successful it's been.