In March, Old Firehouse Books’ Jacqie Hasan told customers, via the store newsletter, that the bookstore was having a “lean spring.” She asked that customers consider buying just one more book per month. When people responded and sales increased, Hasan announced the good news in the May 31 post, entitled “How to Make a Difference,” on the Old Firehouse Books blog.
“We have been doing better and better, and it’s all thanks to you!” Hasan wrote.“We have always known that we have wonderful, loyal customers, and that Fort Collins is one of the best places to have an independent bookstore. You really proved it to us, and we couldn’t be more grateful.”
In April, sales were up at the bookstore by eight percent. “April is typically one of our slowest months. So I think we can attribute at least part of our increase to the newsletter,” said Hasan. “May sales were up as well, probably close to the same amount. So I figured, if we asked people for help and they responded, shouldn’t we reinforce that they have, in fact, made a difference? I’m sure many of our customers wanted to know if things were getting better….”
Besides thanking customers, Hasan provided an 11-point list of things that Old Firehouse Books is doing to give back and to make a difference for customers. The list includes donating books to community causes, offering a free membership program, providing a 20-percent discount to book clubs, and supporting the local economy.
The Old Firehouse appeal for community support was a page taken from other booksellers, said Hasan. She deliberately didn’t sugar coat the store’s situation. “I think a lot of retailers feel that they should emulate the swan in business, looking serene to everyone while below the surface things are flailing wildly. We had had a rough January, much lower sales than we had expected. We did what we could to reduce costs, but needed a boost.”
At the same time, the picture wasn’t one of doom and gloom, and she gave customers a concrete way to help. “So here’s a proposal: buy more book per month here at Old Firehouse than you normally would. Choose one more book. Let us help you pick one out — we’re great at that!”
An important part of her message was an explanation of how customers benefit by buying local. “By helping to support your local bookstore, you are supporting five different book clubs hosted at the store. You’re supporting a place for local author signings… You’re supporting a community-gathering center, a place to hang out downtown while you’re waiting for dinner, a place to take the family when they’re visiting you. These are all services that are unique to our store, our town.”
Hasan said she carefully considered her tone in all communications. “I’d encourage bookstore owners to be honest with their customers. We don’t have to be cynically negative or make customers feel guilty. I’ve run into angry owners ranting at me in the past at other small businesses, and it honestly makes me uncomfortable as a customer. Your customers are the reason that you’re in business, and it’s better to tap that resource early, rather than explain later why you are closing your store.”
Having weathered January and February, Hasan is optimistic. “I think part of our January downturn was due to people having gotten e-readers for Christmas and loading up on e-books in January. But the research shows that most people read both paper books and e-books. There might have been some new-toy fascination for the first couple of months of the year, but then people began buying more paper books again. I think that we are recovering and will have a good summer and a good holiday season.”