If you’ve ever been in Brookline, Massachusetts, on a snowy winter evening, walking with a mug of Nutella Hot Chocolate from Paris Creperie, and peaked in a window to find a room of warm heaven, then you’ve seen Brookline Booksmith. The ceiling is decorated in white fairy lights, the books are displayed like colorful bits of candy, and the steam collecting at the bottom of the window promises that you’ll be able to feel your toes again very soon. It is a Boston icon that hosts writers and events, has a new and used book section, and has successfully utilized the internet in a way that few bookstores have managed.
Here is a an interview with the Paul from BMail:
Julie: What makes you recommend a book to a customer?
Paul: I have three steps I go through.
I ask them what they’ve been reading lately, or what was the last book they loved. That usually brings something to my mind. If I can’t get them excited about the books I recommend, then…
I ask them if they will trust me for a minute, and I take them to a book that touches on one of the books they mentioned to me; something tangential, or something analogous. But something that I know well. If that fails…
I make a pitch for one of my personal favorites, almost regardless of genre or subject. By this point, I’ve already given them the honest help that they have asked for, and now it’s just time to shove the world’s best book in their hands and say: trust me.
And this is happening in the Booksmith, so they usually do trust me.
What is the most popular book you’ve ever seen fly off the shelves?
Harry Potter. Next question.
Why do you think Brookline Booksmith is such an icon of Brookline, even when eBooks are becoming more and more popular?
Well, we are simply an excellent bookstore. We are approachable, friendly, our staff is attractive and intelligent, and we cram as many hand-picked books and gift items into one store as probably any other retail venue in the world. We can help you find the book new, used, or specially ordered. If you are in a pinch you can get your newspaper, a gourmet bar of chocolate, a cook book, a book of poems, books for your kids, a box of greeting cards, a spatula shaped like a guitar, a fifty dollar pen, a ten dollar pendant necklace that looks like a sixty dollar pendant necklace, a stack of 50 cent used paperback spy novels, a wind-up sushi toy, and a bag of cookies. And we won’t even be surprised at all of that when we ring you up. And if you are a member of any number of non-profit cultural organizations in the area, we will give you a discount.
Also, your dog gets a treat.
And we bring your favorite authors here to read to you.
And we’ve been doing it for fifty years, and now nobody in the neighborhood would ever want this space to turn into another bleeping bank or cell phone store.
Do you consider eBooks to be in the same market as printed books, or are they marketed to different buyers?
I hardly ever find myself discussing ebooks with customers, but now that we carry the Kobo ereader (which has tons more available titles than any provider, and is a slim, lightweight device that is the equal or better of any other one on the market) the frequency of those conversations has picked up.
I think the marketing takes care of itself…if you are someone who likes new devices, you probably have done the research and bought yourself an ereader. If you aren’t interested, then marketing isn’t going to have much of an effect. All hype aside, my hunch is that there are enough people who just aren’t interested in changing over to ebooks, and that the demise of the paper book is far far in the future. A balance between the two mediums is starting to show itself.
How does Brookline Booksmith choose what books to carry in store?
We’ve been here since 1961, and all that time we’ve been paying attention first and foremost to our customers, and then to the publishers’ reps who make the trips to talk to our three book buyers.
We pay close attention to the people we meet, and then we find them the books that they want, and the books that they don’t yet know that they want.
Brookline Booksmith has a very extensive “used book” section. How do you decide what used books to buy for this section?
Now that is a whole different art form. Our used book buyers operate in a different manner from our new book buyers. They have to stock the shelves with what will sell, of course, so a good portion of what they buy will reflect the same tastes of the collection upstairs. But they also have more license to take a shot with the weird, the bizarre, and the unusual, because they don’t have to commit to buying a half dozen copies of this weird, bizarre, and unusual book. It seems like it’s a blend of knowledge, hunches and a sense of humor. I always tell people that the greatest thing about the Used Book Cellar is how it catches the books that fall through the cracks of new bookstore upstairs.
Brookline Booksmith does a great job of supporting local and lesser-known authors. Why do you think this is important?
It’s important because this is Boston, which has a ridiculously high population of writers. If we didn’t invite them to read here all the time, and stock their books on our shelves, not only would they get mad and tell their friends and family to stop coming here, but we’d also be stupid, because they are really talented people who write very very good books.
How do you choose which authors to promote?
From what I understand (our events director is usually moving at a high rate of speed, or else on the phone, so it’s hard to get detailed explanations of what she, or any of the past directors, does.) it’s mostly a question of “who can we get?” A lot of authors and publishers have an established relationship with our events series, so there are a number of events that come to us, so to speak. But our events director will also make pitches to publishers, sending them clever and passionate emails to convince them that, should the author be heading our way after this new book hits the shelves, then we would be the most deserving to host them. She will also field dozens and dozens of calls from new and local authors, and we try our best to guage who is going to fit the best in our store, and who will engage the best with our customers’ interests.
In a bookstore, books are arranged with some showing their full cover, others only their spine. Does this affect the book sales? How do you choose which books to face outward?
It does affect sales, to some extent. I think that most “faceouts” are more of a response to sales, or at least to how many of that book our buyer has bought. We booksellers are, in this sense, extensions of our buyers. If they believe in a book enough to buy a dozen, or thirty-six, or three hundred copies of a book, then we face that book out. Because they are almost always right. But booksellers (each of us with our handful of sections that we personally look after) also have a duty to inject our own tastes and opinions, so we’ll make room for a faceout of a book that we really love, even though we know it might not ever sell. It’s the principle of the thing, you know? We want browsers to know that this bookdeserves to be seen. You might never buy it, but we are going to present it to you.
Other times, it’s 11:25pm and you just want to start that hour-long commute back to Newtonville, and this shelf you are straightening is a total mess, and the only way to get all the books to fit right is to faceout any old book that makes the books fit right.
Brookline Booksmith has a great online presence, from BMail (an email newsletter), to a Google Calendar, to an online store. Has this made a difference in your customers staying connected? Do you follow any other bookstores / publishers / authors online?
It has absolutely made a difference! It’s always going to be true that the vast majority of our sales will be made in-person, inside the bricks-and-mortar Booksmith rather than online, but the way we connect with our customers outside the store is vital to the way they think of us. We aim to be available all the time.
And you’ve only mentioned a few of the ways. B-mail is sent out to over 7,000 subscribers, and opened up by over 2,000 readers every week, which is far above the industry average for a retailer’s newsletter.
We have a Twitter account with almost 7,000 followers.
We have a general staff blog, and a travel blog, with new posts almost every day (do you know how many writers work here? this blog isn’t advertising. it’s literature.)
We have a facebook page, and so does the Card & Gift Room.
We are on Tumblr, we are on Instagram, we are pretty much anywhere that people share their experiences. Everything this store does is aimed at keeping the literary, cultural, and social life of Brookline humming, and our online presence is just another way of doing that.
You can find links to all of these things near the top of the newsletter, http://www.brooklinebooksmith.com/b-mail.htm.
I am so happy to have gotten a chance to answer your questions! It’s good sometimes to sit down and think about all the reasons that this place is important to me, and to my neighbors in Brookline and Boston.
Thanks so much to Paul for answering these questions! The website is http://www.brooklinebooksmith.com and I really recommend checking it out.