“We're not competitors. We supplement each other,” said Skylight Books owner Kerry Slattery, describing her store's relationship with the local branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Like Skylight, many independent bookstores have established working partnerships with local libraries that provide significant benefits to both sides. “One of the first things we did before we even opened the store was meet with the local library director,” said Susan Fox of Red Fox Books in Glen Falls, New York.
Events are one of the main opportunities for bookstores and libraries to combine their strengths. “Any time we have an event we think is bigger than our store,” Fox said, Red Fox teams up with the library, which has room for many more attendees. “And they've been very good about asking us to sell books at their events.”
Skylight Books' local library is not allowed to sell books at its events, so the store is happy to handle the retailing. “Even though we don't sell huge numbers” of books at the monthly events, the library's proximity makes it easy for staff to do the off-site sales, Slattery said. And the increased visibility is more than worth it. “People always mention to me later, 'Oh, it's so nice that you and the library share stuff,'” she said.
The short distance between Skylight and the library also helps the booksellers and librarians send customers from one place to the other, so they can get the books they want easily. “If we don't have something in,” Slattery explained, “we'll say, 'Oh, I bet the library has it.'” And, she added, “The librarian regularly sends patrons to us when there is a long waiting list for a popular book.”
Libraries also appreciate the fundraising partnerships that they are able to form with local bookstores. “We'll give them gift certificates or donate books” for children's summer reading prizes, said Fox, and the Glen Falls library appreciates the donations.
At Skylight, customers get involved in library donations as well, with two different ways to contribute through the bookstore. “When people want to donate money specifically to the branch, the librarian suggests they give it to a special account we have created at the bookstore for the library. Then the librarians can use that fund for extra purchases on an as-needed basis,” Slattery explained.
Skylight also allows customers to purchase books for the library at a 10 percent discount. “For a $15 -$20 donation, which usually wouldn't seem like that much, they can give a book that matters to them,” said Slattery. To recognize the donation, the bookstore writes the customer's name on a small paper book cover and displays it in the store. One year, booksellers covered a tree with the personalized book covers. “It decorated our store, it allowed people to see we were donating to the local library, and the library was thrilled,” Slattery added.
A personal connection to someone at the library is essential. “It's really just getting to know the individual or a couple people,” said Fox. “It helps to have a personal relationship with your senior librarian,” agreed Slattery, who described her local librarian as “particularly great.”
Aaron's Books in Lititz, Pennsylvania, found out how difficult it can be to establish a relationship with the library. Co-owner Sam Droke-Dickinson was disappointed when the local library showed no interest in working with the store. But thanks to a customer who sits on the county library system's Council of Friends, Aaron's now works with Lancaster County libraries to bring in authors, promote reading, and plan children's programs.
“I think the key is finding the right person at the local library who will be the indie promoter,” said Droke-Dickinson. In this case, Aaron's found that person among the volunteer leadership instead of on the library staff, which led to a county-wide partnership, instead of one in Lititz.
“I just had an e-mail conversation with the youth services director for our county, and we're going to work with them in promoting the library card registration for first-graders this fall,” she said. “She's a contact we gained through our work with the Council of Friends – which all came about thanks to a dedicated indie bookstore lover and one of our most ardent supporters in the community.”