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Return Trips: Online Customers Can Go Home Again

Shelf Awareness -- July 18, 2006

We all have favorite travel destinations we "discovered" at some point, and to which we return whenever we can. The urge to go back applies even more to Web siteseeing because it's so easy--no long lines, no traffic jams, no lost luggage, no screaming kids (headphones help).  

Why do people visit certain Web sites day after day? Why do you? Why do customers visit certain bookstore Web sites regularly? Why don't they?

In response to my first column for Shelf Awareness, a reader disagreed with this statement: "Presumably, the sites weren't built for current patrons, nor are they there to lure readers into the bricks-and-mortar store." He said a lot of regular customers used his site "as an additional way to stay in touch, and to help them plan visits to the store--both in terms of checking times/dates of events and also to search for books using our online db before driving here to buy the books in person."

I agree, but--if I may paraphrase Miss Peggy Lee--"Is that all there is . . . to a bookstore Web site?" Event schedules and title research are important services, but they're modest goals. You can drive a Ferrari to the supermarket for groceries. Is that the best use of its potential?
Some Web sites do try harder. The July 6 issue of Shelf Awareness reported that at Mystery Lovers Bookshop, "30% of store revenues come from online sales." While the site itself isn't visually striking, it is absolutely packed with useful information for mystery fans, and offers a range of incentives to purchase books online, including discounts and free shipping. I'm currently interviewing owners Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman. I'll share their thoughts on the topic with you in an upcoming tour stop.

I'll also tell you about Pass Christian Bookstore, which was leveled during Hurricane Katrina and has survived the perilous transition period by functioning aggressively and passionately as an online operation. Author Carolyn Haines called my attention to this effort and suggested I contact owner Scott Naugle. "They've built a great e-mail list," she said, "and stay in touch with their clients in that way, until a new storefront can go up." Scott and I are now discussing his online strategy ("Our Web site has kept us in business," he wrote), and I'll share his thoughts with you soon.  

Ultimately, it's all about return trips. We travel to certain places for many reasons, but we go back out of loyalty and a desire to replicate a pleasurable experience. It doesn't have to be complicated.  

For years, my morning ritual has included a cup of coffee and a visit to Arts & Letters Daily. The site is simplicity itself visually, and hasn't changed much in all the time I've been going there. Each morning, new links are posted for three articles, culled from all over the Web. There always seems to be something worth reading.

So I return every day.

On the other hand, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an intricate, beautiful Web site. Even though I'm a bricks-and-mortar member (if a long-distance one here in Vermont), I seldom visited online until they began posting "Today's Featured Work of Art from the Permanent Collection" on their home page. That relatively simple addition, fresh each morning, has altered my relationship with the museum.

So I return every day.

"By and by I got this idea of a travelling bookstore," Christopher Morley wrote nearly a century ago in Parnassus on Wheels. "I had always been a lover of books, and in the days when I boarded out among the farmers I used to read aloud to them. After my mother died I built the wagon to suit my own ideas, bought a stock of books from a big second-hand store in Baltimore, and set out."

Back then, the notion of a bookshop that went to where the readers were wasn't revolutionary. Traveling salesmen of all descriptions plied their trades from house to house, farm to farm. Maybe a little Parnassus spirit is worth considering again. For different reasons, Mystery Lovers Bookshop and Pass Christian Books have found ways to build their online wagons and "set out." Both are on my "Favorites" list.--


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.


Bookshop 'Siteseeing' on the Information Highway

Shelf Awareness -- June 15, 2006

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.


Welcome Robert Gray

Editor's Note

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.

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