I'm not sure if this qualifies as a cool idea of the day, but Craig Wilkins of Best of All Possible Bookshops has an intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level--smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.
Wilkins said he realized last summer, as the economy began to slide, that his problem as a bookseller was "the damned readers. They weren't listening to me and even when they came to the bookshop, they often slipped out with no purchase."
Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. "Essentially, I make them eat their words," Wilkins said. "We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books."
And if his customers think they can avoid all this by simply not coming to the shop, Wilkins has a little news flash for them. "I know where they live and I have a van," he said, touting the advantages of an up-to-date mailing list. "We go to their houses just like Amazon does and make them buy books, but with the added incentive of actually being there in person so they have to look us in the eye to say no rather than simply moving a cursor over to a toolbar and switching to the Desperate Housewives website."
For booksellers considering this approach, Wilkins cautioned that the most important step is game preparation and execution--the Xs and Os. "You must have your head in the contest at all times," he advised, "looking for weaknesses, ready to adjust to the flow and not get caught by surprise. So many things can happen during a sales transaction, but a gifted smashmouth bookseller will always be ready to move and hit, move and hit, reacting again and again to the changing momentum of a confrontation with an underachieving opponent . . . um, customer."
I was fortunate enough to be in his bookstore during one of these smashmouth handselling sessions recently. A customer entered, and instead of the traditional greeting ("Good morning; may I help?"), Wilkins moved aggressively from behind the counter and rushed the newcomer with an all-out blitz, reaching his foe as the customer plucked a copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk from a Staff Picks display.
"You don't deserve that book!" Wilkins screamed, snatching it away.
"Why not?" the customer asked timidly, looking for an escape route. But Wilkins had him cornered.
"You aren't smart enough, pal."
"Sure I am."
"Yeah? Prove it! What was the best translation of a Pamuk novel before this one?"
"Um, Black Book?"
"Wrroonngg!" (Wilkins imitated the sound of a harsh buzzer)
"Oh, My Name Is Red?"
"But I want to read this book. I do!"
Now that Wilkins had his opponent caught up in the game, he went for the literary kill. Holding Snow just beyond the customer's reach, he said, "If you want to read this, you're going to have to buy five books by midlist authors, too."
"Because I said so and because if you're smart enough to read Pamuk, you're too smart to ignore these other books. Deal?"
"Deal." There was surrender in the customer's eyes, but also, oddly, pleasure. Was that the thrill of defeat?
Wilkins observed that while bookstore sales have slumped nationwide during the recession, his have actually held steady. Not one to be complacent, however, he recently sent out a threatening e-mail newsletter warning that if he doesn't see an uptick of at least 10% by the end of April, he will be making more house calls.
I asked Wilkins if he had any words of wisdom for prospective smashmouth booksellers, and he shared his basic, primal philosophy: "Your opponents read their books one page at a time just like you do. The best narrative defense is a good narrative offense. Our backs are to the shelf. We have to take this one book at a time. Reading isn't everything; it's the only thing."