Schuler Books & Music: A Community Bookstore

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Schuler Books & Music has four Michigan locations (top to bottom): Grand Rapids, Okemos, Lansing, and the newest store in Walker, just outside of Grand Rapids.

Schuler Books & Music -- with four locations in the Grand Rapids and Lansing, Michigan area; approximately 250 employees; and an average store size of 25,000 square feet -- is as large, if not larger, than many chain bookstores in the area. However, Schuler Books prides itself on being an independent: each branch is a community bookstore that offers loyal patrons the kind of book recommendations, uniqueness, and customer service, expected at a local independent.

And Schuler Books is successful. Just recently, the bookstore opened its fourth bookstore, and, last week, joined the Book Sense marketing program.

"We finally realized the importance of Book Sense … as a marketing tool," said Coryn Briggs, promotions coordinator at Schuler in Okemos, Michigan, near Lansing. "Also, because we've grown and are so large, we're trying to do more branding so people realize that we're a independent, and we want to be a part of the community of independents, both large and small."

Schuler Books & Music first opened in 1982 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The store was founded, and is still owned, by Bill and Cecile Fehsenfeld, a couple who met at the University of Michigan while working at the college bookstore. "They had dreamed of opening their own bookstore," Briggs said, "and Bill grew up in Grand Rapids."

Initially, the Grand Rapids store was 7,800 square feet, but only six years after opening, in 1988, it moved a half mile down the road to its current 35,000-square-foot location on 28th Street. A second Schuler opened in the Meridian Mall, near Michigan State University, in Okemos in 1990, and, in September of 2002, the Fehsenfelds opened a third store in the Eastwood Towne Center in Lansing.

This year, the Fehsenfeld's fourth store opened in Walker, just outside of Grand Rapids. "[The Fehsenfelds] opened the [new] store because customers in Grand Rapids were asking for a store on that end of town, and the area that it opened in is experiencing a boom in businesses, making it a great location," explained Briggs. She added that, at present, there are no plans to open any other stores. "However, if an opportunity presents itself, it will be considered," she said. "In the meantime, they are going to focus on successfully building the two new stores and maintaining the older stores."

A cozy corner at the Okemos store.

Aside from the original store, each bookstore is approximately 25,000-square-feet. "They are large, but comfortable and cozy at the same time, with all these nooks and crannies," Briggs said. Each Schuler Books & Music offers over 100,000 book titles, as well as CDs, DVDs, gifts, and a gourmet café. The stores hosts reading groups, author signings, events geared to the community, and weekly Saturday morning story times.

"We have staff pick sections and music picks, where we fill out review cards," Briggs noted. Along with bestsellers, "we try to … have displays of books that are different, where we focus on back list titles." She explained that, because so many staff members want to do book displays, each store has a chance to do a lot of different things. "Each Schuler has an eclectic mix, picked by staff -- they're well-rounded picks," she noted. "Independents have more freedom to focus on what the staff and the community like." In the near future, each Schuler store will also have a Book Sense 76 display table.

Also differentiating Schuler from its chain competitors is its range of Community Services programs, which help to extend the store's reach within each area. "These programs really started from the beginning, since Bill and Cecile were active with schools in their Grand Rapids community," Briggs said. "They were made 'official' for the stores in 1994."

The children's section at the Okemos store.

Services offered include Schuler Books' "Outside Sales Program," which allows organizations to include book sales as part of a convention, seminar, or special event. "Basically, we will go to an organization's event, set up a table, and sell books for them," Briggs explained. "We will then give 20 percent of the sales to that organization. This is a great way of getting your name known -- it's an outreach program."

The "Consignment" program is similar, but it is geared to schools, churches, libraries, and other nonprofits, allowing the organization to sell the books at their events. The organization buys the books on a house account at 20 percent off and sells them at full price at their function. "Whatever is not sold is brought back," Briggs said. "This is really great if they don't want a store's presence there."

One of the more popular community service programs, Briggs noted, is "Book Days." This program allows a nonprofit organization to pick one designated week during the year where 20 percent of sales from members and supporters goes back to the company. The organization is responsible for advertising the "Book Days" event to their members, who must refer to the program when purchasing an item.

Other programs include "The Reading Group Center," where reading groups register their group and receive club books at 20 percent off; the "Classroom Discount Program," which gives a 20 percent discount to K-12 educators purchasing educational materials for classroom use; the "Reach Out!" program, which lets nonprofits set up an in-store display for two hours to get the word out about their program; and a "Store Tours" program, where teachers can take small groups of students to see how an independent bookstore operates on a day-to-day basis.

"The Community Services programs are a big part of our success," Briggs said. "It creates positive word-of-mouth about Schuler Books & Music." --David Grogan