"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, email@example.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.
"New ground, these days, is rare."--Sybille Bedford, Pleasures and Landscapes
Most independent bookstore Web sites are a waste of time and money, and about as useful as a weathered motel on an abandoned highway.
I don't really believe the previous statement, at least not categorically, but I think it's a good way to shake things up and get this trip started. In recent months, I've become a bookstore Web site tourist, visiting them the way other travelers might "collect" the cathedrals of Europe. I'll be sharing some of my travel experiences with you in this space.
"I write in my notebook with the intention of stimulating good conversation, hoping that it will also be of use to some fellow traveler," wrote my unofficial mentor, the 17th century Japanese poet and travel diarist Bashö.
Our trip begins with a simple question: Why do independent bookstores have Web sites?
I spend more hours than any rational human being probably should exploring the Web sites of bookshops coast to coast. My travels take me to ambitious destinations like Powell's Bookstore as well as more modest, yet appealing sites like McLean & Eakin Booksellers and Urban Think! Bookstore. I visit the technologically gifted as well as the technologically challenged. As Johnny Cash sings on a current motel advertisement, "I've been everywhere, man."
Although I'm traveling (virtually) for business as I search for gifted handsellers, that primary question has haunted me again and again, and it's worth repeating: Why do bookstores have Web sites?
The logical answer seems to be because, in an increasingly online world, bookstores simply must have a Web presence. Most book buyers are now Internet savvy and have a comfort level with shopping online that has cost traditional bookstores a substantial portion of their customer base
If, then, a Web site is a necessity, who are bookshops trying to reach? Presumably, the sites weren't built for current patrons, nor are they there to lure readers into the bricks-and-mortar store. The logical goal must be to extend a bookstore's reach beyond the limitations of geography; to bring the best of what a particular indie has to offer into the homes of Web-oriented customers nationwide.
Oddly, however, whether you visit a dozen independent bookstore Web sites or a hundred, you will see variations on a singular theme: "We are a marvelous, full service bookstore with a staff of knowledgeable readers who will be happy to help you find great books. Please visit us." And while the majority do have intriguing Staff Picks sections, the sites are primarily digital billboards.
Consider, for example, the fact that even though most Web sites offer recommendations by their best handsellers, few include individual e-mail addresses for those staff members, so a customer might be able to make a direct, personal connection with someone who shares their reading taste. This is the essence of service inside a bookstore, but Web sites tend to favor the info@. . . approach, discouraging interactivity and person-to-person handselling.
Imagine hundreds of bookshop owners greeting everyone who came through their doors by telling them what great service was available, then running away like Alice's White Rabbit and no one taking their place to actually deliver on that promise.
As a longtime bookseller, I tend to romanticize this profession. I can't help myself. I think that customers who patronize indies love an atmosphere that is at once indefinable and absolutely recognizable. Online, I'd call it the "84 Charing Cross Road Effect," that unique ability to attract and retain customers who might never actually visit your store, but who want to become part of the family nonetheless. A good Web site should mirror, not contradict, the store's atmosphere and potential for good, productive (both warm and profitable) conversation.
I want to find out how bookstores are addressing this challenge. I'll be your tour guide as we take this siteseeing trip, but I encourage you to talk back. Tell me what you've seen, too. I'm on the hunt for creativity and innovation online. I'll be talking with booksellers as well as webmasters about creating and maintaining a strong Web presence.
What does it take to build a great bookstore Web site? Let's hit the road and find out.
Robert Gray has joined Shelf Awareness to write regularly about notable developments on the indie front, and his first series of columns, beginning with this issue, will be about bookstore Web sites. Gray is the owner of Fresh Eyes Now, a company that works with publishers, agents and authors to get good books into the hands of gifted booksellers. Prior to this incarnation, he was a bookseller and buyer for the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., for 13 years. As a writer, Bob's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Publishers Weekly, Bookselling This Week, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Words Without Borders, Eclectica Magazine and Cimarron Review.