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« Return Trips: Online Customers Can Go Home Again | Main | Bookshop 'Siteseeing' on the Information Highway »

First 'Siteseeing' Stop: breathe books

Shelf Awareness -- June 27, 2006

"New ground, these days, is rare."--Sybille Bedford, Pleasures and Landscapes

The Information Highway seems to offer unlimited "new ground" to explore. Bookstore Web sites tend to play it safe, however, as if in fear that the online world is flat and they might fall off the edge should they venture too far.

In my first column, I asked why independent bookstores had Web sites. Now we'll begin a virtual pilgrimage to discover some answers; to find out not only why bookshops create the sites they do, but what their online expectations are.

For a number of understandable reasons, including issues of discounting and shipping fees, indies aren't necessarily online to challenge the Goliaths--Amazon or B&N.com--head to head. If a rock and slingshot just won't work anymore, how can a bookstore stake a viable and productive claim out here?

There are so many places to explore, but I'd like to begin with a small bookshop in Baltimore, Md., called breathe books. It's an example of what can, or cannot, be done with limited funds and expectations. We'll visit more ambitious sites in our travels, but breathe books proves that even a modest approach can project a welcoming image and an open window to interactivity; a feeling that there is a human being on the other side of the home page.

Owner Susan Weis, who launched the site when she opened her store in late October, 2004, says that she wanted her Web site to "be a reflection of the store (and maybe me)--a warm, inviting, non-intimidating space; a place to explore at leisure and to be able to feel comfortable asking questions and just hanging out."

From the beginning, Weis focused upon communication rather than direct online sales ("I didn't think, as a one-person shop, that I could maintain it properly"), though the site does generate some e-mail and phone orders.

She believes that the site helps her sustain relationships with customers throughout the region. "We are in regular touch with them," she says. "They either e-mail or call me--we like personal contact here. The e-mails come directly to me, and if I'm away, my employees handle it. We answer everyone."

Weis displays a personal e-mail address, susan@breathebooks.com, but has not found this to be problematic. "People feel more connected," she says. "They see my photo on the Web site, so they know who is reading their email. I find info@ addresses to be a bit cold and impersonal." E-mails are current forwarded to her AOL account, though she is considering a switch to Google's Gmail, which she believes has superior options for sorting, filing and searching.

Despite the modest appearance of the breathe books site, Weis is able to garner a wealth of information about her online visitors. The statistics page gives her an hour-by-hour read on hits, so she can gauge the most opportune times to update. It also informs her "where the person is on the globe. I was recently in India and Bhutan. I saw that people I'd met were checking out the site because I had numerous hits from there."

She's also interested in how visitors find her site because checking referrals can be a useful tool. "It's great for marketing," says Weis. "For instance, so many hits come from government or medical institutions (Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, Social Security Administration), so I can tailor my events for our primary audience."

While the breathe books site may not be a webmaster's dream, it does showcase a personal and interactive approach to establishing an online presence that is not always apparent on more sophisticated bookstore Web sites.

"I don't think you can function in today's marketplace without a Web site," Weis says. "It's a great way to inform people about who you are--and a way to make your presence known." Without connection, there can be no conversation. Without conversation, there can be no handselling.

Sometimes you can discover "new ground" online even when you don't venture all the way out to the edge.

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