Staff Book Club Sparks Conversation, Innovation at Malaprop’s

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Every two months, a core group of managers from Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café and sister store Downtown Books & News gathers at a local Asheville, North Carolina, café or coffee shop to dish about their latest staff book club selection.

The group — which includes Malaprop’s café manager, financial manager, and owner, in addition to store managers from both shops — has been meeting for a year and a half. The book club gives them the opportunity to read and discuss books on a variety of topics relating to business, decision-making, social sciences, and more.

“I’ve always been very inspired by the books that are selected for the keynote speakers at Winter Institute,” said Linda-Marie Barrett, Malaprop’s general manager and the book club’s coordinator. The book club is modeled after the roundtable conversations that follow Winter Institute plenaries, where booksellers engage in thoughtful discussions on subjects highlighted during the talks.

While salaried, management-level staffers are required to attend the book club, non-managerial staff members are also invited to join in the conversation, which they often do, and are paid for their time.

The book club discussion takes place an hour before work at a café — not at the bookstore, noted Barrett — where the booksellers can enjoy breakfast on Malaprop’s. Barrett selects a different locally owned business for each meeting and either reserves seats or lets the establishment know to expect the group.

“We discuss the book, how we can relate it to Malaprop’s and how we manage, or just to our lives,” said Barrett. “Most of us didn’t have any training in management until we came here. We have been enjoying it as a way to educate ourselves.”

A recent favorite of the book club is Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration: Lessons From The Second City by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton (HarperBusiness), which Barrett selected following a featured talk by executives from Second City at Winter Institute 10.

“We will read books that are not necessarily management books but that might be useful,” explained Barrett. These have included How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Wi10 speaker Steven Johnson (Riverhead) and Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, co-authored by Dan Heath, who spoke at Wi9, and Chip Heath (Crown Business).

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill (Simon & Schuster) sparked a great discussion on store design, she said. “We all came in inspired, and looked at the store again and redesigned some things” to ensure that customers feel comfortable and the store is accommodating. Among the changes was the addition of baskets to be used by browsing shoppers.

Titles selected for the club are available at no charge to staff members who want to read them, regardless of whether they are attending the discussion, and Barrett said that publishers have been happy to provide copies of the book club selections. “They love the idea that all the managers at a bookstore are reading their book,” said Barrett. “Ask your rep.”

So far, the club has been a great success for Malaprop’s, and Barrett highly recommends that other booksellers consider starting one of their own. “We feel like it’s benefited the store and our customers,” she said, “because we’re making better decisions and looking at things anew.”