Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Chronicle: Bookstores: The Voices and Visions of Angela Roach; A Day In The Life of Good Yarns

[Note: I'm having trouble uploading photos to Blogger again, so I'll add the photos to this post later if I can.]

As I'm working on the business plan for my eventual Brooklyn bookstore, and as I'm getting to know my fellow booksellers through the New Atlantic Independent Bookstore Association and the Emerging Leaders project, I've gotten the opportunity to spend time in some great independent bookstores. All of you readers and book people probably spend a fair amount of time in bookstores, as I do, but it's surprising what I've begun to notice as I'm looking at these stores from a business person's perspective. What follows are accounts of my recent visits to two area bookstores that have taught me a great deal about good bookselling and good business sense – not to mention being home to delightful booksellers.

Voices & Visions
The Bourse, Philadelphia, PA
Proprietor: Angela Roach

I met Angela at an "Emerging Leaders" meeting sponsored by NAIBA, geared not so much toward the under-40 crowd as toward those who had just opened bookstores or just gotten into bookselling. Angela opened Voices and Visions a little over a year ago, and was full of ideas and questions at our meeting in Phoenixville. What drew my attention was the assertion by Ron Rice of distributor Bookazine that he had seen Angela's business plan and it was "like the Torah" in terms of size and impressiveness. I was instantly full of admiration, and determined to try to pick her brain at some point about how she had made her store a reality. To that end, I got in touch with Angela and asked if I might come visit her store and talk about her startup process. She graciously agreed, so one day in mid-July I got on the bus to Philadelphia.

Voices & Visions is located in The Bourse – essentially a shopping mall in a beautiful historic building. A little out of the way on a lower floor, the store draws attention to itself with beautiful posters advertising its whereabouts throughout the mall – I had no trouble finding the place. There I found Angela, already hard at work before opening, behind the graceful round desk in a store full of intriguing corners and nooks.

[insert picture]

She graciously allowed me to walk around taking pictures while she made some adjustments to the store website (which is hosted by Booksense) – an artist had submitted new images to advertise for their upcoming gallery event. Voices & Visions, as the name implies, is a bookstore focused on art and performance as well as on books, and their event series and the store's décor reflect that focus. Its customers include local students, tourists of Philadelphia's rich historical center, and local residents who have made the store their home. Angela's art-oriented sensibility is also reflected in her creative "branding" – every sign in the store is written in the store's signature font and style, helping to create the idea of the store as an institution.

I learned almost as much walking around the store for 15 minutes as I did from our conversations! One of my favorite creative ideas was this table, which came from an interview Angela did with a local TV station, where she recommended her favorite books for summer reading. What a great way to connect with the local community!

[insert picture]

This is another focus of Voices & Visions: supporting local culture and creating a community institution. There is a Regional Room for local authors and artists, and the store abounds in cross-promotions for other local businesses. Angela's engagement with her community is an inspiration, and I know it will serve her in good stead.

After my photo tour, we left an employee in charge of the store and adjourned to a local coffee shop, and hours flew by as Angela told me the story of opening her store, a lifelong dream which came to pass with its fair share of drama, heartbreak and triumph. She graciously passed along what she'd learned and discovered in that process, and he plans for the future, and answered all of my questions. I reluctantly let her return to her store, my brain buzzing with ideas for how I could apply the success story of Voices & Visions to my own vision. I'm grateful for the benefit of Angela's experience, and grateful for the chance to visit another wonderful independent bookstore.

Good Yarns Bookstore
Main Street, Hastings-On-Hudson, NY
Owner: Sean Concannon
Manager: Amanda Lydon

I met Sean Concannon in his incarnation as sales rep/proprietor of book distributor Parson Weems when he visited our store for a sales call. I had barely learned his name when he said "I read your Day in The Life of Corner Bookstore post, and I think you should spend a day in my store." I learned Sean not only read my blog, but he had recently become the owner of the venerable Good Yarns store in a little town just upstate from New York City, and was hoping to get some feedback about how things are going.

Life intervened, though, and I half forgot about Sean's offer until I met Amanda Lydon at the Emerging Leaders Night Out. Amanda manages the day-to-day business of Good Yarns while Sean and his fellow owner are on the road for Parson Weems, and her bookstore enthusiasm was infectious. (As it turns out, she has a sparkling bookstore pedigree; her mother owns Osondu Booksellers in North Carolina, and has launched a now-famous campaign to get Oprah to visit the store and promote independent bookstores). My brain was jogged again when I noticed a photo in PW (which I can't find now) of a party celebrating the one-year anniversary of Good Yarns new ownership, and I decided it was about time to make that visit. So, on another day in August, I boarded the MetroNorth train from Grand Central Station and made my way to Hastings-on-Hudson.

My delight began when I got off the train (after only 40 minutes) and walked up a set of stairs to find myself on Main Street, which looked like something out of an idyllic summertime novel or a 1940s movie. Many of the store fronts looked like they dated from 50 or 60 years ago, but all were lovingly maintained, including that of Good Yarns, a few doors down on the left. I walked in to Amanda's smiling face, and quickly met not only the other employees on duty but a customer or two, all of whom seemed to be well-known faces, trading news and book suggestions.

The idea was that I would work as an employee in the store for the day, but I have to admit I didn't actually do a lot of work. Amanda and I were too distracted by talking to each other about ideas and experiences (her employees teased her that she'd found someone "just like her," by which I assume they mean a book nerd). We compared notes on point of sale systems, reordering, customer relations, book clubs, sidelines, store layout and organization, logos and branding, and staff training. At some point we took our conversation to a local diner for lunch, where we were joined by Amanda's 12-year-old "intern." "My dad says I'm living his dream," she told me, and I tend to agree with him – how cool would it be to grow up hanging out in your local bookstore?

I made a couple of suggestions about store layout (moving the fiction section from the several separate racks to one long wall display) and using the computer system (creating reports for weekly reorders), but I know I learned at least as much from Amanda as she learned from me. (We were having so much fun I forgot to take any pictures!) Having learned the business in the trenches (she helped her mom open Osondu, creating the store from scratch with no previous bookstore experience), she has a daring and creative sensibility I admire. Her next idea is a local "moveable feast" – a sit-down dinner with local authors, with tickets to be purchased in the store, for which she may collaborate with the local library. I wish Amanda, Sean, and Good Yarns the best of luck as they continue to grow, and have every confidence they'll become a bookstore to be reckoned with!

What bookstores have YOU visited that inspired you with their creative ideas or great people? I'd love to hear about them!


Anonymous said...

As the sales rep for S&S I would be happy to be your host if you would like to visit a few stores if you are coming in for the NAIBA show. Chester County Book and Music Co is close by as is Readers Forum. Both stores have wonderful hand sellers. Give me a call if interested tim hepp 610-642-8726

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, Jessica! I had a blast with you at the store. It's so important for booksellers to work together and share creative ideas. Have fun visiting more stores.