Inaugural Indies First a Big Success

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 Indies First –– the grassroots movement started by author Sherman Alexie just three months ago –– was widely embraced in communities across the country this past Saturday, with customers turning out, sometimes in droves, to meet authors who had signed on to become booksellers for all or part of the day at their local independent bookstores.

More than 1,000 authors could be found handselling books and chatting with customers in more than 400 independent bookstores nationwide on November 30, Small Business Saturday, which also marked the launch of bookstores’ Thanks for Shopping Indie marketing efforts.The Indies First juggernaut received widespread media coverage, with articles in print publications whose circulation totaled more than 15 million. Indies First also made more than 18.7 million impressions on Twitter, and the Indies First Facebook page, which launched just 10 days before the event, received more than 1,000 “likes.”

This week, Alexie, who volunteered as a guest bookseller at five stores in northwestern Washington for the day, told BTW: “I was heartened again and again by folks who think of their local bookstore as an extension of their house, and of local booksellers as a part of their families. So Indies First ended up feeling like we’d collectively created a new family holiday. We’re going to have to make greeting cards.”

Prior to starting his rounds to Queen Anne Book Company, Secret Garden Books, The Elliott Bay Book Company, University Book Store, and Third Place Books, Alexie sat down with host Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition to discuss his day’s plans. “My career happened because the booksellers at independent bookstores hand-sold my book,” said Alexie, adding that the bookseller-reader relationship was crucial to gaining attention for his books.

About Indies First, he told the radio audience: “We are looking for people to shop small, to shop locally, and I think by doing that they promote a more healthy, diverse, and progressive literary world.”

Customers heeded the call at bookstores across the country where Saturday’s events drew crowds, increased sales, and resulted in a heightened awareness of the benefits of doing what the campaign suggests ­­–– putting indies first.

Phoenix Books, which has two locations in Vermont, extended its Indies First festivities to Sunday, hosting several local authors as booksellers, including Rusty DeWees, James Kochalka, Dr. Arnie Kozak, Dr. Dave Landers, Daniel Lusk, Angela Patten, Tracey Campbell Pearson, Robert Resnik, and James Tabor.

“Since Indies First was announced, we have been excited to give our community members the opportunity to meet and get expert advice from these local luminaries,” said Phoenix events coordinator Kristen Eaton. Though sales were up all weekend, and up 20 percent from last year’s Small Business Saturday, Eaton said, “What really wowed us over the weekend was the depth of enthusiasm that these authors brought to Indies First.”

Author Tracey Campbell Pearson had a list of recommendations for parents, many of whom left with stacks of children’s books. James Tabor stayed an hour past his scheduled shift and has already expressed excitement for next year’s event.

Assistant manager Kari Meutsch said customers, who could be seen throughout the day chatting with authors and taking their book suggestions to heart, were thrilled.

Phoenix plans to continue having important conversations with customers and local authors, making sure to let them know their options in terms of online shopping and self-publishing. “Putting indies first is definitely a message that our booksellers understand and talk about openly, and warmly, with everyone who enters our stores,” said Meutsch.

At Island Books in Middletown, Rhode Island, authors Ann Hood and Taylor Polites each spent two hours in the store, with slightly overlapping shifts. “Ann is a local celebrity of sorts so people came out to see her as she is so generous and loves to talk with people,” said store owner Judy Crosby. “Taylor was a big hit [and] together they were a hoot!”

The store stocked some of both authors’  favorite books, which they talked up to customers, though shoppers seemed to be primarily interested in the authors’ own most recent titles.

“The Indies First idea was embraced by our customers as an extra-special way to spend Small Business Saturday, which has grown for us every year,” said Crosby. “We also had many customers in Friday and Sunday who specifically came to shop with us because they weren’t able to on Saturday and wanted us to know they were thinking of us. Shopping locally is becoming part and parcel of their daily routine.”

Island Books’ sales were up throughout the weekend, and “all in all, it was a terrific weekend and a good time was had by all,” said Crosby.

At Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company, sales were “up a lot on Saturday,” said owner Daniel Goldin. The store hosted 11 authors throughout the day, in two-hour shifts. “Every author had a lot of energy and seemed to have a lot of fun,” said Goldin.

Boswell made bookmarks for each participating author that listed his or her titles. The bookmarks were placed throughout the store, inside the author’s own books, as well as in the books he or she was recommending. The store also created a display table that featured the authors’ titles, as well as their picks, and Goldin plans to keep it intact for the next several weeks for shoppers looking for holiday gift ideas. The authors’ picks were also featured in both the store newsletter and blog.

Boswell’s author-booksellers included Lois Ehlert and Larry Watson, as well as a local sportscaster, local children’s authors and illustrators, and many authors that teach creative writing at local universities. Many of the authors had been booksellers in the past, and most of them knew each other, which gave the store “a lot of nice energy,” said Goldin.

“Some of the authors got really into it,” he said, adding that Larry Watson was spotted handselling many different books, including fantasy titles.

“A lot of people told us it was a good idea, and that they came in specifically to meet the authors,” said Goldin, adding that the store was extremely busy around noon.

Lititz, Pennsylvania’s Aaron’s Books hosted A.S. King for Indies First. “We love A.S. King,” said store co-owner Sam Droke-Dickinson. “She’s a huge supporter of ours and has been since her first book.” King split her time between greeting people at the door and hanging out in the YA and middle grade sections. She made several recommendations to parents, kids, and grandparents. Later, King’s daughters and the owners’ son joined her in the kids’ section to make book suggestions.

“There was definitely an awareness of shopping locally,” said Droke-Dickinson, adding that many were surprised to see an author working at the bookstore.

Aaron’s plans to use the Indies First promotional material in BookWeb’s DIY year-round, since it is in alignment with the shop local message the town promotes. 

Author Lynn Plourde was a bookseller for a day at Apple Valley Books in Winthrop, Maine, and both the author and the store worked hard to promote Indies First, said owner Eric Robbins. “For us, it was a very good day,” he said. A few weeks prior to the event, Plourde provided the store with a list of books that she would be recommending, and Robbins made sure to have them all in stock. Plourde brought her own tent signs featuring her picks under the banner “Lynn Plourde recommends” and placed them around the store.

Nearly everyone who came into Apple Valley seemed to be already aware of the event and its indie intentions, said Robbins, who added that he plans to strengthen the bookstore’s visibility on Facebook as well as its relations with local authors.

Octavia Books welcomed nine authors, who handsold their own books as well as others they felt passionate about, throughout the day. Octavia provided each author with a copy of Sherman Alexie’s letter, which first challenged authors to become involved, so they were fully informed of the day’s mission.

“They were just all for it,” said store co-owner Judith Lafitte. “It was really pretty cool. They were all so excited, and I think they had a lot of fun.”

The authors wore nametags, and many greeted customers at the door, introducing themselves, and letting them know they were available to help shoppers.

“The customers enjoyed it as much as the authors did,” said Lafitte, adding that many people were happy to be able to meet the authors of a book they’ve read and enjoyed. “There were great discussions going on the whole day, and a very positive energy in the store.”

Octavia received a lot of attention from the media, said Lafitte, including a video shot in the store by a local news station featuring Lafiitte and co-owner Tom Lowenburg discussing the benefits of shopping indie.

“It was a big day,” said Lafitte. “We were very excited about our sales, authors were enthusiastic, customers were excited. It was a total win-win for everybody.”

Putting indies first is an idea that Octavia embraces year-round. When the bookstore works with authors, the owners emphasize the importance of including an indie purchasing option on their website. “We get seriously behind authors when they come into our store,” said Lafitte. “So we say if they want to have an event at our store, they have to link to IndieBound. And they seem to respect that.”

In Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Reader’s World welcomed nine authors, including Darlene Deluca, Dennis Young, and Trisha Leigh, and plenty of customers into the store for Indies First and Small Business Saturday. Assistant manager Jamie York created name tags for the authors, who, he said, jumped into their roles as guest booksellers with no prompting at all and had an excellent time chatting with customers and discussing books and reading. “It was like old hat. It seemed like they had been doing it all their lives,” said York. “I would hire every one of them.” Reader’s World, which just celebrated its first anniversary, doubled its sales compared to Small Business Saturday 2012.

Customers seemed impressed that authors were in the store hand-selling books, said York, and many of the authors talked up the event on social media and urged their friends to come out in support. Many people said that they had waited for Saturday specifically so they could support small businesses on the special day. “It ended up being a great sales day,” said York.

Chris O’Harra, owner of Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, Washington, was thrilled with the turnout on Small Business Saturday. The store came close to doubling its sales from last year, said O’Harra. “I was stunned when the bookkeepers gave me the numbers. I was floating on a cloud.”

Customers thoroughly enjoyed having authors on hand to help them choose books, and O’Harra was impressed with the confidence with which the authors approached and helped customers find books. “Here were these people who had not worked retail before and they were pros at it,” she said. “They could have a job here any time they want, they were that good.”

Auntie’s welcomed a range of authors, including some who are self-published. Among the day’s participants were Jess Walter, Shawn Vestal, Kenn Nesbitt, and Kelly Milner Halls. The authors were encouraged to promote books that they themselves enjoyed, and O’Harra said that many of the authors’ own books sold well throughout the day.

The store actively promoted Small Business Saturday and Indies First as the event approached, and it continues to drive home the buy local concept with the community. O’Harra had several people commit to shopping local for the holiday season, noting that “this is the first time I’m hearing it consistently, so it’s certainly paying off.” She strives to remind customers and the community that “if you want small business to survive, if you want an alternative to big box, then you have to support these stores, whether grocery stores or hardware stores or bookstores. You have to put your dollars in their tills, and if you don’t, they’re not going to be around.”

Bookseller Katrina Bradley of Page One Bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was very happy with the connections the authors made with the store’s customers on Indies First. “One of the nice things about Albuquerque and New Mexico is that we have the ability to be neighborly and friendlier than some of the big box stores,” said Bradley. “We’re able to talk to our neighbors and share our enthusiasm for books, which we have in spades.”

Local authors Robert Julyan and David Ryan shared their knowledge about the popular hiking and camping spots in the nearby Sandia Mountains with customers, and Katie Lane spent time in the young readers section, where she suggested many fellow local authors to customers. “I had one customer who has only been in Albuquerque for about six months, so I hooked her up with Bob Julian to get to know New Mexico better,” said Bradley. The store also advertised a Tax Free Weekend bonus, in which the store paid the tax on all purchases for the entire weekend.

Overall, Page One did very well with sales over the weekend. “I can’t say whether it was because of Small Business Saturday, Tax Free Weekend, holiday shopping, or Indies First, but it was a good sales day,” said Bradley. “I hope that we do this again, I hope this is a national campaign. I think that Alexie did a really fantastic job challenging local authors to become part of the process to try to sell a book to somebody and to become part of the enthusiasm. It breaks down some of those barriers — I’m holding the book and here’s the author. What a treat!”

Author T.C. Boyle spent two hours at Granada Books in downtown Santa Barbara, California, on Saturday. “It was a great event. He was a very gracious host,” said the store’s managing partner, Mark Zolezzi. Boyle talked with customers, made book recommendations, and signed copies of his own titles.

Granada, which opened in June, tallied its best sales day yet, chalking it up to a combination of Indies First, Small Business Saturday, and the holiday shopping season.

Customers were eager to meet Boyle, coming in a day early to find out when he’d be there and lining up to chat with him on Saturday. “It really created a lot of buzz and excitement in the store,” said Zolezzi. “We’re looking forward to doing it again next year, for sure.”

Granada strives to foster the shopping local spirit in its community. “It was a great message to give to people at this time of year: don’t forget your local stores that aren’t chains, that are serving you year-round. It’s great to thank them by shopping there,” said Zolezzi.  

At The Book Spot in Round Rock, Texas, seven authors spent the day greeting customers at the bookstore, including Jeanette Larson, P.J. Hoover, and Shana Burg. Danny Woodfill, who owns the bookstore with his wife, Julie, was very pleased with the turnout.

Since Small Business Saturday has been a very busy event for the store, Woodfill noted that many customers seemed to enjoy having extra booksellers to talk to when browsing the store. “The authors did a really good job of engaging people on a personal level. It wasn’t about pushing their books or talking about them like it is at an event,” he said. “It’s like going into a music store and having musicians that you know talk to you about music, not about their latest album.”

Book Spot is not in a community that is heavily focused on shopping local, but “we work very hard all year round to promote shop local,” Woodfill said. He encourages authors to come by the store to sign books or chat with customers whenever they have a moment, and can just about guarantee them a sale if they do. “Indies First just promoted that even further — that by coming into the bookstore and being here as an author it definitely opens up the conversation about their work and books.”

Author Garth Stein, who chronicled his adventures across northwest Washington for Shelf Awareness, made some personal discoveries during his visits to five bookstores in one day, including Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island, The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, and Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Engaging in a friendly competition with fellow authors, enjoying the triumphs of unearthing a recommendation for a particular reader, and creating fabulous relationships with indie booksellers exhausted Stein, who at the end of the day decided to leave it to the professionals. “But they know what I’m capable of now, I think. My bookseller friends know I’ve got some chops,” he said. “And they know where to find me if they need me. Until then, I’ve got a book of my own to finish.”

At Vroman’s, author Hector Tobar spent two hours in a green apron directing customers all over the store, which he knows well from his many visits to the Pasadena, California, store. “Building community and supporting independent bookstores were the reason we were all there,” Tobar wrote in a piece for the LA Times. Tobar sold several of his own books, complete with his signature, and took pride in directing customers to the books they were looking for, even if not his own.

At the request of her local store, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café in Asheville, North Carolina, author Denise Kiernan volunteered as a guest bookseller for Indies First and wrote an early piece for the Huffington Post to encourage readers to shop locally.

“If you care about your community, you should care about shopping local. If you care about the economy, you should care about shopping local. If you care about books and the people who write them, you should care about shopping local. Each and every day we vote with our pocketbooks and the benefit of Indies First extends well beyond the pocketbooks of the author and the bookseller, and well beyond Small Business Saturday,” she wrote. Kiernan also encouraged fellow authors to both sign books at their favorite local bookstore and to direct fans to their local bookstores for purchases.

Malaprop’s had a huge success on Saturday, with sales up 46 percent from last year’s Black Friday weekend and the store featured on local public radio, on TV, and in the newspaper. Linda Marie Barrett, the store’s general manager, said that Malaprop’s was busier than she had ever seen it.  ––Sydney Jarrard and Elizabeth Knapp