Indie Booksellers Talk Strategies for Partnering With Fellow Local Businesses

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Bookselling This Week recently spoke with three independent booksellers to learn about the different ways bookstores can make contact and establish partnerships with other area businesses, whether to increase visibility and marketing potential or to foster a mutually beneficial relationship. Here, booksellers Pete Mulhivill of Green Apple Books, which has two locations in San Francisco, California; Madison Duckworth of Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo and Bremerton, Washington; and Laurie Gillman of East City Bookshop in Washington, D.C., talk about their experiences. 

Green Apple Books

Mulvihill told Bookselling This Week that Green Apple works with other businesses in a variety of ways; these relationships have been formed through the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Association (SFLOMA), an organization founded in 2000 that aims to bring together leaders from a number of different local businesses, as well as the Clement St. Merchants Association, which hosts events such as art walks, meetings on neighborhood issues, a young entrepreneurs edition of Small Business Saturday, and more.

Green Apple has also successfully partnered with 3 Fish Studios to host a six-month pop-up at the bookstore. “We did a 50/50 consignment agreement and sold tons of their prints,” he added, noting that the partnership also benefited the studio, as it saw new customers and sales as a result.

Additionally, Mulvihill said, the bookstore has partnered with local brewers to promote their beer while giving it away on special occasions, and for a recent Independent Bookstore Day, Green Apple organized a bike ride with San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

In terms of forming these relationships with fellow business-owners, Mulvihill said that they each came about on a case-by-case basis. “Usually,” he said, “it’s me doing this kind of relationship building, external-facing networking stuff.”

“Sometimes we meet around a shared issue, sometimes we see sales opportunities, sometimes there’s value on cross-promoting businesses — face-to-face is best, always,” he added, noting that the ideal way for booksellers to network is to get out of their own store. “Visit and support other indie businesses that you love and look for opportunities, from trading ads in e-mail newsletters to partnering on events.”

Liberty Bay Books

Liberty Bay Books, said Duckworth, typically partners with local businesses when it is seeking offsite venues for author events.

“Since we live in our community, we’ve been to many of the stores and restaurants before,” Duckworth said. “We know which of them have event spaces and which places would be a good fit with whatever event we’re hosting.”

When Liberty Bay is hosting an event that they expect will have higher attendance, they begin thinking about which local space would be good to partner with, taking into account the anticipated size of the audience and whether the venue has a fee associated with it.

Once a place is established, Liberty Bay will reach out to the business to see if they would like to partner with the store; typically, she said, businesses will respond enthusiastically.

“Most places we partner with have something of theirs to offer the attendees, like food and drink or merchandise,” she said. “So, while we sell books, our partners will have great sales of their offerings that evening, too.”

For example, Duckworth noted that sometimes Liberty Bay will partner with a restaurant for a cookbook-related event and tickets will include the author’s book, a sample of a dish from the book, and a glass of wine.

To communicate with other businesses, Duckworth noted that e-mail works best for Liberty Bay; booksellers should be sure to establish the date and time of the event, ticket price (if there is one), as well as any other pertinent information. Then, any marketing materials created for the event are shared with the partnering business as well.

For events, Duckworth noted that Liberty Bay will typically handle ticket sales and keep a record of attendees. “Mostly, all we ask of the partnering business is that they spread the word and help us advertise the event in their store space and on all of their social media accounts,” she said.

Because Liberty Bay has been in business for over 25 years, the store has established great, longstanding relationships with many of the businesses it partners with, Duckworth said. “There has been a huge boom of craft breweries in our downtown area, so we’ve made some new friends and new connections, and they’re great places to hold events,” she added. “Our downtown association is very tight-knit and we all know each other and work well together.”

Said Duckworth, “Don’t be afraid to hear the word no. It never hurts to ask! And make sure the other business knows how it will benefit them to partner with your store as well.”

East City Bookshop

The area surrounding East City Bookshop in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is “very much a community, and in some ways, it’s like its own little village,” said Gillman. Because of that, the best way for her store to partner with other local businesses is through larger-scale downtown events like Find Waldo Local, as well as neighborhood events.

Meeting with businesses face-to-face to establish partnerships is typically best, Gillman said. For example, for Find Waldo Local, booksellers need to partner with at least 15 other businesses, and in her experience the best way to get businesses to participate is to stop by in-person with the promotional materials.

While visiting in-person might be time-consuming, she said, it’s worthwhile in the end and meeting face-to-face can lead to other collaborations.

Booksellers should also consider working with their chamber of commerce. Gillman joined the board of directors for her neighborhood chamber of commerce, Capitol Hill Area Merchants and Professionals (CHAMPS), and has since collaborated with other business owners to come up with shop-local initiatives for her community.

One of those initiatives is Sip & Shop, an event that occurs on the first or second Monday of December each year and involves businesses, such as a local wine shop that offers tastings, in addition to local makers and artists.

East City is also located in the area of Eastern Market Main Street (EMMS), part of the national Main Street Program, which “revitalizes older town centers through streetscape improvements and neighborhood events,” said Gillman.

The store participates in a number of multi-business events through this program each year; in order to participate, Gillman said, all East City needs to do is sign up.

“We have had the opportunity to work with businesses during these events that are a really good fit with us,” Gillman said. “For instance, we had a local, woman-owned distillery come and do a whiskey tasting for one of our in-store events after partnering with them at an EMMS event.”

East City also hosts Sunday story times at a local farmers market, Gillman said, which is a good marketing opportunity. “We set up a few items to sell, and although we don’t sell much, it is a great way to get the word out to this very fast-growing neighborhood that’s close to the store,” she said. “The farmers market is new to that location, and story time brings more families there, so it’s mutually beneficial.”