For the Love of the Read

In the battle of books, alumnae independent booksellers are staying on top with wits, agility and good old-fashioned customer service.

By Sharon Rolenc

Like a Grimm's fairy tale set on a dark, scary night, it's a story all indie booksellers can recite by heart.

"In our early years, our biggest competitors were the big national chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders," says Mary Palcich Keyes SP'79, owner of Howard Street Booksellers in Hibbing, Minnesota.

"A few years later, came along and weeded out more of us," adds Theresa Miller Schmitz, SP'75, owner of Children's Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts.

"And then," sighs Elinor McKenna Temple SP'60, co-owner of Excelsior Bay Books in Excelsior, Minnesota, "the e-reader decimated independent bookstores."

But unlike many of their contemporaries, these alumnae booksellers have weathered the storm and are rewriting the next chapter of the tale. They're not alone. Across the country, independent bookstores are beginning to see a resurgence.

Theresa Miller Schmitz, SP'75 of Children's Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts.

In May 2012, the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the trade association for independent booksellers, saw its core membership rise from 1,512 to 1,567. It was the third year of increase, and the most recent numbers show approximately 1,600 ABA member stores operating in about 2,000 locations nationwide.

"We strongly believe that the decline of indie stores has reversed," says Dan Cullen, content officer for ABA. "The growth numbers are modest, but they are indicating, we believe, a clear trend."

Three St. Catherine alumnae bookstore owners share the secrets of their success. Each woman was either an English or library science major at St. Kate's, and all three enjoyed early careers as educators or librarians before embarking on their bookselling adventures.

Key Decisions

Each bookseller had at least one key ingredient — a fortuitous business partnership, a forward-thinking financial decision — that made her venture viable early on.

Over the course of four years, Palcich Keyes made the brutal commute between the Twin Cities and Hibbing, the town where she was raised, to help care for her ailing father. Once he died, it became clear that she would repeat the cycle with her mother. After crunching the numbers, her husband, Joe, suggested they buy a bookstore that was for sale and move to Hibbing.

"Joe was just getting over pneumonia, and I thought he was delirious," she says now with a laugh. "He was a CFO at a large Twin Cities nonprofit. Our beautiful dream house in Oakdale was almost paid off. Why would we move? But he was serious."

Timing was everything. The couple sold their Twin Cities home at the height of the housing bubble, which allowed them to purchase a home in Hibbing outright. They bought the bookstore with the inheritance from her father, so they had no loan payments to make.

"We couldn't have done this if we carried a mortgage or business loan," she says.

Mary Palcich Keyes

Mary Palcich Keyes SP'79 of Howard Street Bookseller in Hibbing, Minnesota.

For McKenna Temple, who was 58 when she opened her bookstore in a western suburb of Minneapolis, the key was going into a business partnership with Ann Nye, who is 20 years younger. "Ann does the bookkeeping and heavy lifting," she says. "Never once in 16 years has she asked me to shovel the walk."

As for Miller Schmitz, when a condo developer offered her a chance to buy into the building where her bookstore is housed in suburban Boston, she grabbed it: "It's the best business decision I ever made. My mortgage is modest, and I'm not at the mercy of a landlord and rising rent."

Staying Agile

Miller Schmitz has owned her store the longest, at 27 years. She bought during the 1980s, a prosperous time for independent bookstores — and especially children's bookstores, as Baby Boomers started having children.

"You could hardly fail, so a lot of people tried their hand at it," she says. "We were all former teachers, librarians and people who loved children's books. It was almost a missionary zeal, getting those wonderful books into the hands of readers."

But then came the national chains, and the e-reader, and Miller Schmitz saw the number of children's book stores dwindle. "It was a real awakening," she says. "We had to learn very quickly how to be better businesspeople."

Miller Schmitz "had to let go of that librarian mentality" that told her every book that anyone wanted had to be in stock. She now orders more often and in smaller quantities, and she made the tough choice to cut staff. "The ones I have now work a lot harder," she says firmly.

Finding a niche and playing to those strengths often determines whether independent booksellers keep the doors open. For Miller Schmitz, it's children's books. Located a stone's throw from the subway and Fenway Park, her dense inner-ring suburb of Boston has become a true destination spot for "all things kid," including a toy store and children's clothing boutique.

Howard Street Booksellers in Hibbing became adept at special orders. Palcich Keyes and her husband also became so good at locating rare and out-of-print books that they've become the go-to source in northern Minnesota for the hard-to-find book.

The couple has lovingly built a regional section over the years, including books about Minnesotan, Wisconsin, Michigan and Canadian history, culture and humor. She's particularly proud of her eclectic collection of Bob Dylan books, showcased during Hibbing's annual Dylan Days.

Located on the Iron Range, Howard Street Booksellers also partners with the mining company Hibbing Taconite. "They occasionally need maintenance, plumbing or electrical manuals for new employees, and will send us a big order," says Palcich Keyes. "That's a special niche that we really didn't understand at the time we bought the store."

When it was clear that books alone wouldn't raise enough sales, both the Excelsior and Hibbing stores significantly diversified their stock to carry puzzles, educational toys, greeting cards and stationery, among other gifts.

"We've tried to find other items that tie into books, like matching a great picture book to a puppet," says McKenna Temple, whose Excelsior store carries a robust line of popular Folkmanis puppets.

The true secret to her survival, however, is living in the community she serves. Palcich Keyes — the former distance commuter — wholeheartedly agrees.

"We offer an experience that you won't find in a big chain," she says. "Our customers have become our friends. We've watched their kids grow up, go to college, get married. We've mourned deaths together. It's a blanket of comfort that community offers."

Innovative Marketing

The three booksellers rely heavily on word-of-mouth and cross-promotion with area businesses. They do little or no paid advertising. Miller Schmitz in Brookline has a Facebook page and an email newsletter with 2,000 subscribers.

Every year since 2004, Palcich Keyes has hosted a holiday party for preferred customers — a suggestion she picked up from a Canadian bookseller. Invitations with reminder cards are sent, wine and appetizers are ordered, lights are dimmed, and the store is closed to the public for an evening.

"It's become such a tradition that people start asking about the party in August," she says. "People bump into friends they haven't seen in months. They visit, enjoy some wine, and bring piles and piles of books to the register."

At the height of the Harry Potter craze, Excelsior Bay Books hosted lavish parties — even closing off their block to turn it into Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. "We didn't discount the Harry Potter books one penny," McKenna Temple recalls. "Parents paid full price because we put on a good party that their children enjoyed."

Since then, she's partnered with a local restaurant, 318 Café, to host author events. Out in Brookline, Miller Schmitz forged a similar relationship with the local library, which now allows her to bring in books to sell after author readings.

Elinor McKenna

Elinor (Ellie) McKenna Temple SP'60 of Excelsior Bay Books in Excelsior, Minesota.

Buy Local

For the past decade, nonprofit think tanks and independent business associations across the country have promoted "buy local" campaigns. Much of the focus is on support for brick-and-mortar storefronts.

"These stores are present in our communities," says Mary Hamel, executive director of the Twin Cities-based Metro Independent Business Alliance. "They are supporting local charities, they are employing your neighbors, and their tax dollars and profits are staying in the community."

When a neighborhood bookstore closes, "everyone is heartbroken," she adds. "But if we don't use them, we lose them."

According to a recent case study by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self Reliance, 52 percent of revenue from local independent retailers is returned to the local economy versus 14 percent from national chain retailers.

"Stores like mine keep money in the community," says Miller Schmitz. "It's an uphill battle, but people are starting to hesitate before clicking that 'buy online' button."

For the second year in a row, local independent business associations across the country promoted the Saturday after Thanksgiving as "Small Business Saturday." Palcich Keyes did not sit down once after she opened the store for the day. "Everyone who came through those doors said, 'I'm shopping local today,'" she recalls. "That makes us feel like we're doing something right."

When e-readers threatened the bottom line of indie booksellers, the American Bookseller Association struck back by entering into a national partnership with Kobo eBooks, which can be read on most tablets or e-readers except Amazon's Kindle.

But the Kobo partnership is a mixed blessing for many independents. "With so much of the children's market dependent on picture books, it doesn't make sense for my store," says Children's Book Shop owner Miller Schmitz.

Howard Street Booksellers also opted not to carry the product. "Most independent bookstores who sell e-readers and e-books are doing so at a loss," says Joe Keyes of Howard Street Booksellers. "We would never take on a product line that costs us more than we bring in."

McKenna Temple says her Excelsior store retains a loyalty among lovers of the good old-fashioned book. "The customers we lost to e-readers started coming back this year," she says. "They like the e-reader when traveling, but when they truly want to cuddle up and dig into a story, they want a book."

Analyze the cost-benefit of owning an independent bookstore, and you have to factor in the labor of love. "Would Joe and I be better off financially in the Twin Cities with jobs that have benefits and a pension waiting for us? Without a doubt," says Palcich Keyes.

"But you cannot put a price on this sense of community we've created, the fun we've had along the way, and the stories we've heard. It's been some kind of ride."

Hot Reads on a Cold Winter Night

Book recommendations from Elinor McKenna Temple, Excelsior Bay Books:

  • Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt
  • Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man, by Brian McGrory

From Mary Palcich Keyes, Howard Street Booksellers:

  • Shoemaker's Wife, by Adriana Trigiani
  • Faithful Place, by Tana French
  • The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro

From Theresa Miller Schmitz, Children's Book Shop:

  • Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
  • Life: An Exploded Diagram, by Mal Peet
  • The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater
Note: These three are young adult titles, but "all great reads for anybody."