Saving a Bookstore

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

If you enjoy the odd trip to the bookstore, but wonder how long bookstores have left with Amazon as a competitor, take heart. At least one mom-and-pop bookseller has found a winning formula, according to Phil Johnson of Forbes.

Working in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Johnson had learned that the Harvard Book Store had new ownership. Johnson feared for the store at first, but eventually found himself wanting to know how the new owner was seeing his bookstore thrive despite Amazon and the depression. So Johnson interviewed Jeff Mayersohn to learn how he achieved "double digit sales growth month by month over the last year", and encountered some very creative thinking in the process.

Imagine for a moment what it would feel like if people walked into your company and used the lobby to call your competitors and buy their products. That's standard consumer behavior in a bookstore. People browse, find a book they like, pull out their smart phone, and order online.

Making an intuitive leap, Jeff wondered if the opposite could be true? Maybe access to the vast universe of digital content could also save the bookstore. Maybe the bookstore, while limited in inventory, could evolve in the digital world and become a destination where people had access to every digitized book ever published.

Essentially, [Mayersohn] installed a printing press to close the inventory gap with Amazon.  The Espresso Book Machine sits in the middle of Harvard Book Store like a hi-tech visitor to an earlier era. A compact digital press, it can print nearly five million titles including Google Books that are in the public domain, as well as out of print titles. We're talking beautiful, perfect bound paperbacks indistinguishable from books produced by major publishing houses. The Espresso Book Machine can be also used for custom publishing, a growing source of revenue, and customers can order books in the store and on-line.
I love this, and I'll have stop by there some time just to see it. Rather than meekly accepting his store's apparent role as "Amazon's showroom", Mayersohn has instead made Amazon (and Google) his catalogue. He did this by realizing that, like most big advantages, Amazon's involves trade-offs. Seeing an opportunity in what Amazon doesn't offer, Mayersohn found a golden opportunity and seized it.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

I always made an effort to purchase my books at Borders. However, I got sick and tired of not finding many titles. If you base your model on what's on the New York Times bestsellers list or what Oprah Winfrey is reading, you're bound to fail.

Amazon offers the best option for finding out of print, or obscure books. I've found plenty of them. If this bookstore has a model that keeps there doors open, implement it with gusto!!

Bookish Babe

Gus Van Horn said...

It would depend on what kinds of legal agreements they have in place, but a store like this could even cater to people like me, who like ebook readers, but find our title selection stymied by what's available in one format or the other (e.g., Kindle vs. Nook). When the maker of our ebook reader doesn't carry a title, our current options are: (1) own multiple ebook readers, (2) (illegally) remove DRM protection from ebooks sold by competitors to the maker of our book reader, (3) install reading software on a computer or smartphone and read the books there, or (4) buy a printed copy.

Steve D said...

I love this store already and I’ve never even been there. This statement puzzles me, though.

"People browse, find a book they like, pull out their smart phone, and order online."

Does this seem backwards to you? Why would you go to the trouble to visit a bookstore then order online and get the book only days later? Even, if you get an eBook it still takes a while to show up on your Kindle. And if you prefer eBooks why visit the bookstore anyway; you have a lot more choices on line. It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. Still, the article implied that most people want the printed copy?

It works the opposite way in the article. Go to the store, open up your smart phone, find a title you like, and have them print you a copy. I wonder how expensive this machine is. I want one. If it was cheap enough, you could sell them to individuals; they could buy a license to print the book and then print a single copy right out of their home.

I'm not that keen on eReaders, anyway - they work ok (sort of) and they’re light weight and great for backpacking but they require a lot more effort to maneuver through the book, flip around and find stuff quickly etc. The technology has a ways to go yet before it’s as good as a printed copy.

Gus Van Horn said...


Just a quick reply to a couple of your points as I am in a hurry.

(1) My guess about the books is that the bookstore has only hardcover or is selling new copies of old classics and getting killed on price. Otherwise, this behavior doesn't make much sense.

(2) A big gripe about ereaders is that, for books with tables or that contain exercises, they're worthless -- even converting to PDF doesn't always result in a readable table or something you can print out and work on.

Where I currently am, in Boston, where square footage is expensive, ANYTHING that takes up space, even a book, merits a second thought before purchase. Ebooks do cut down on some clutter.