Friday, July 13, 2007

Part 1 in a series: The Brooklyn Bookstore of my Book Nerd Dreams

As an exercise in the process of writing my Brooklyn bookstore business plan, I dashed off a description of the ideal Brooklyn bookstore that exists in my head. It's a long one, so here's the first part. I'd love to hear what you think, and what your ideal bookstore would look like.

The Brooklyn Bookstore, Part 1
The bookstore has big windows in which new books are displayed face out, along with book posters and large signs about upcoming author events (e.g. Three Lives). Stenciling on the windows displays the old-fashioned but freshly designed logo (e.g. Jack's Coffee). The exterior is well-renovated and clean-cut but retains traditional Brooklyn architectural elements, as does the interior of the store. (Tin ceilings, molding, and antique-wood counters and shelving fixtures would be ideal, but I'll work with what I've got.)

Upon entering the door and passing through an open transitional space, customers first see a display of important new (and perennially selling) fiction and non-fiction, and the register and customer service desk (placed to the left, where Paco Underhill posits customers usually veer upon entering). Music is noticeable but not intrusive (slightly softer than Gorilla Coffee, but more rockin' than your average bookstore; employees will be allowed to load music onto the store iPod to ensure variety). Displays of staff picks, local authors, and various themes pull customers from table to table. The walls are lined with shelved books by section, with perpendicular additional shelving to separate alcoves (e.g. McNally Robinson). Tables and shelving fixtures are of honey or darker wood – not the bland, blond shelving of chain stores, or the verge-of-rot dark of some hole-in-the-wall indie bookstores, but a balanced, warm tone that subtly evokes the bookstore's position between tradition and innovation with a focus on warmth, relationships, and community. Signs, walls, and accents are in various shades of brick red and light blue, colors designed to create both calm and excitement. The store says "Brooklyn" everywhere you look.

On the wall shelves, books are alphabetized only from knee-height to arm-reach-height (approx. 1 ½ feet from the ground to perhaps 7 feet). Cupboard doors below this point hide overstock shelves. Above this height are placed old book posters, Brooklyn-related antiques or decorations, or even art by local artists. Shelving sections will be flowing and flexible, based on customer demands and new discoveries about how the store works best. Sections and tables may include, but are not limited to:

Brooklyn and New York – history, fiction, local authors
Criticism & Scholarship – lit crit, etc.
Fiction – classics, our favorites, important new stuff
Graphic Lit - comics and graphic novels, memoirs, and nonfiction
Mystery/thriller/pop fiction
Nonfiction – general, history, science…
On Consignment – self-published stuff (e.g. St. Mark’s)
Performing Arts – film, theater, etc.
Poetry – classics, favorite new stuff
Spanish language books
Staff Picks
Travel – guides, travel writing
Used books – or mix in sections?

There is a separate children's section in a corner, surrounded by shelving (with Young Adult and teen titles on the outside) to form a low wall with one entrance and exit (e.g. Good Yarns) to make it easier for parents to keep track of their charges. Display copies of books and toys are placed on low shelves, with copies for sale placed out of toddlers' reach. A low chair or two conducive to lap-reading is placed in the section, along with a rug or carpeting for crawlers and story times. A children's manager maintains this as almost a store within a store, but all employees are encouraged to read children's books and briefed often on good children's books to recommend, as a high percentage of children's book purchases come from recommendations. Children's book events take place in this space in the afternoons and on weekends, so it must be large enough to contain a small crowd.

The sales counter also includes shelves at reachable level with the categories "Train Reading" and "Miscellany", for impulse purchases and odds and ends. Behind the cashier is a chalkboard labeled "This Just In" and "Coming Soon", listing important books just received and those coming out in the next month or so (e.g. video stores, Other Music). There are also signs about our website, services, and some upcoming events at readable level behind the cashier, and flyers about programs and events placed at reachable levels for customers to pick up while waiting to pay or ask questions.

An information mini-desk (or two, depending on size and layout) in other parts of the store take the pressure off of the register for customer questions and other computer-related tasks. These each contain a computer at a high desk at which employees can sit on a tall stool to search for books, enter orders, work on staff picks or other ongoing projects, while remaining at eye-level to standing customers. All computers are loaded with Microsoft Office, point of sale software, fast internet connection, and InDesign and other programs, so that employees can efficiently work on projects while making themselves available to customers.

A small office space in the back of the store provides space for meetings with sales reps, private employee meetings, and receiving. Efforts are made to keep most of the activity of the store out on the sales floor rather than in the office, to maximize both selling space and interaction of employees with customers.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week. In the meantime, tell me what you think!


bhadd said...

Your spatial memory actually is amazing! Numbers are harder--the Small Business Administration is good at giving away free business plans for use/study.

Anonymous said...

Nice post for both its bookish and entrepreneurial spirit. Thanks. Especially loved how you walk through the store in your description. The only thing I didn't totally feel was a tangible sense of your connection to Brooklyn.

I think the place where indies will thrive and even dominate bookselling in the not-so-distant future is in the increasingly local (and this includes online presence as well). While you can't beat the big box stores at inventory size or discounting, you can most certainly take advantage of your devotion and connection to the community, and your flexibility in not answering to national buyers or marketing plans. I'm sure this is already in your thinking, but I think it can come out even more in your plans.

The simple idea that came to my mind as I was reading your post was that instead of a discreet Brooklyn-centric section, you could use a single shelf running around the entire perimeter of the store, through every category to feature Brooklyn titles. Basically a stripe around the entire store (maybe painted differently to make it stand out) that's nothing but Brooklyn -- Brooklyn art, Brooklyn business, etc...

Anyway, it's a lovely vision for a bookstore, and I'm looking forward to your next installment.

AuntieKate said...

Love Greg's idea of the "ribbon" of locally-focused books through each of your categories...although you will have to make a decision re whether "local" means the SUBJECT is local, or the author is.

Two more things to mull over:
* Why would you put all "consignment books", which you refer to as self-published, in a discrete section, rather than where they belong, e.g. mystery, Brooklyn art, etc? That's not the way your shoppers will shop, and of course, with software, you will have no problem keeping track of what's where, what's in inventory, and so on.
* Speaking of keeping track of location of a volume w/in the store: could I humbly beg, as a consumer, that some merchandise be REPEATED in various places? Is there some rule that says one cannot put a few copies of a book in one section, and another few in a secondary the "misguided" consumer might find it? Like at the grocery store: do mini-marshmallows go next to the Jello or with the cocoa mix? Not a grocery I know does both, and it flabbergasts me why not....

Best wishes on your dreams!

Richard said...

This is great stuff, but as you say, it's ideal, not practical.

The only places in Brooklyn the rent would be affordable would be the neighborhoods where there'd be no customers for this kind of store!

Book Nerd said...

Bhadd -- thanks for the compliment! I am taking advantage of the resources of the Small Business Administration and Brooklyn business development corporations as I plan my bookstore.

Book Nerd said...

Greg -- thanks for your thoughtful comments -- I agree with you entirely. I want any bookstore I work in to reflect the specific character of the neighborhood where it's located, as well as helping to define that community. While I think there is a generalized Brooklyn sensibility (which I'd like to write about in depth later), the flavor of the store will depend greatly on where I eventually end up. I don't know at this point what neighborhood my bookstore will be in -- much depends on finding a good space -- so I've left things a little vague for now. I appreciate your close observation, and your idea of running Brooklyn authors throughout the store -- great ideas!

Book Nerd said...

sarasotakate - thanks for your good wishes! Of course, I agree with you that books on a specific subject should go in their respective category, whether they're consignment or not -- that's how we do it at the bookstore where I work now. I was thinking more of St. Mark's great section of zines, chapbooks, and other obviously hand-made or individually printed items, which are typically sold on consignment and are something of a draw themselves. Those I think should be displayed, along with indie comics, on a rack that will show them off -- but you're totally right that regular books on consignment should go in a regular category.

As for having books in more than one section -- I'm so with you on that! How else will we make sure all those "interstitial" books find their readers? One of the primary criteria for picking an inventory system will be how well it deals with cross-referencing, and I'm hoping to do some experimenting to make this happen in the best possible way.

Book Nerd said...

Richard -
Thanks for your compliment, but I'm not sure what you mean by your comment. If you mean that I'll have to carefully balance the potential profitability of a neighborhood with rent prices, of course you're right. If you mean that the size of the store may be smaller than it seems in my description, that also may be true. If you mean that there's nowhere in Brooklyn that could support a store like mine and still be affordable, I think you're mistaken. There are a lot of retail success stories in Brooklyn neighborhoods from the Heights to Red Hook and everywhere in between; a lot of neighborhood loyalty; and a lot of readers. I'll write more about this later, but I don't think it's impractical to bring a beautiful bookstore to one of any number of Brooklyn neighborhoods and make a go of it. You'll hear more out of me on this one, to be sure.

Unknown said...

I think your bookstore sounds wonderful - it's definitely a place I'd love to visit. :)

One additional suggestion comes from my favorite independent bookstore. Booksellers fill out recommendation notes that are slid into the shelf under the book and folded down so that you can read them. It's similar to a "staff recommendations" section but instead of in a separate location, it is spread out throughout the store in the sections where the books normally live.

I love hunting through the shelves and have sometimes found great books I wouldn't have otherwise been drawn to - a good way to draw attention to some books that have gotten less acclaim elsewhere.

Richard said...

Hi again - my comment meant the first two things you mentioned. I was kind of being joshing about what you might take as the latter comment; it's just that friends I know exploring retail space (though not for anything like a bookstore) are finding rents very high. I'm sure there are good deals out there, but I think one has to search for them.

Anonymous said...

Loved the part about the children's section. Hope you will include lots of "classics" here.

Andy Laties said...

No sidelines??

Jeremiah Moss said...

i wish you could buy the 7th Ave Bookshop in Park Slope, which is currently up for sale and/or closing, whichever comes first.

Book Nerd said...

Jeremiah -- I've certainly thought about buying 7th Avenue Bookshop, as well as anotherli bookstore that's for sale in Brooklyn. But these shops are primarily used, which is not the market I know about or am interested in. And the space is too small to allow for the kind of events I'd like to do. I hope someone does buy the shop who loves used books like the current owner does -- it will be sad to lose it, but I'm not the one to take it over.