Letting the E-Reader Go

Josie Leavitt -- May 16th, 2013

We tried. We really tried. Last year during the fourth quarter we attempted to sell e-readers and try to capture some of the folks who have switched to reading electronically. It was not a success.

We got the Kobo display from Ingram, through the ABA, and set it up. We did staff trainings on how it worked, but without a wireless connection at the store, we were hindered from the get-go about how to actually get the books on the reader. Honestly, as snazzy as the Kobo readers were, we just didn’t fall in love. I found myself feeling ambivalent about chatting them up to customers. I know other stores did well with them and I’m glad for them. I realized that getting people to buy an e-reader from me meant that in some way I might lose a customer.

My experience with people who get e-readers is after a very short while, they don’t come back to the bookstore. These same people are very used to getting their e-books from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and breaking that purchasing track is all but impossible to do. As much as I loathe Amazon and what it’s done to the book industry, their website has become the gold standard by which all other book sites are judged. And, none of our sites really measure up.

It was a sobering moment in February when we returned all of our unsold Kobo readers. I wasn’t sad about it. It just confirmed again that what we do well, very well, is sell physical books to people. We interact with customers. They don’t get a list of “If you like this…” on a screen, they get excited booksellers asking pointed and fun questions about what they’d like to read. I would miss this if all my customers bought books online from us exclusively. I’ve come to see that the reading market has really changed.

Customers who have Kindles we almost never see anymore for their own book purchases. Thank goodness these folks have kids and still believe in books for their children. So, while we cede most of the adult book purchases of these customers to the online world, we get almost all of their purchases for their kids. And that is enough. So, our continued focus will be on reading and stocking the best books we can.

As we head into the summer I have had an internal debate with myself about whether or not we should sell eReaders, and once again have decided to let the folks with e-readers go. After being in business for almost 17 years I can see no point in chasing down the readers who are using Kindles and Nooks. Instead of spending ad dollars and using website space and counter space at the store trying to get the e-readers to buy e-books from us, or to buy an e-reader from us, we will instead focus on what we do best: selling physical books. I feel like every indie bookstore should do this more. Yes, you can still buy e-books from our website, and some folks do, but people come to a bricks and mortar store for the experience. Every day I hear from customers how much they love our store. They love the colors of the walls, the richness and playfulness of the carpets in the picture book section, the chairs, the upholstered cubes scattered throughout the store, they love the smell of the books and then they notice the actual books. These and a hundred reasons are why people will continue to shop at indies.

We provide an experience that cannot be matched online. The minute stores forget that is when we’re doomed. We cannot go head to head with Amazon or B&N (although some would dispute this) in the online world, but we can make every customer want to come back and tell their friends about this great little bookstore in Vermont. Nothing is more fun than going to any store where the people are passionate about what they sell.

I do not begrudge people their e-readers. I think there are enough different types of readers to keep us all going. I believe indies just need to be smarter about how they spend their energy. In rural Vermont, we’ve decided to focus on live customers in the actual store and give them the best experience possible. When that last-minute birthday party invitation comes in, these folks are not logging on at Amazon Saturday morning, they are at the bookstore getting our advice and buying great books for the party.

We remember if someone else already bought that book for the same party and steer you towards a different book. Oh, and we wrap, with ribbon, for free.