How One Independent Bookstore Survives and Thrives in Tough Times

by Kevin Casey on January 24, 2012
paula-deen-at-indie-bookstore-300x230.jpg

Digital publishing, intense competition from Amazon.com, and other factors have made it more difficult than ever for small bookstores to turn a profit. Even large national chains have struggled, sometimes mightily, as demonstrated by Borders recently closing all of its stores.

But the news isn’t all bad. Some independent booksellers, such as Quail Ridge Books & Music, continue to add new chapters to their histories, no matter what challenges come their way. The Raleigh, N.C., store has been in business since 1984 — and shows no signs of calling it quits. In fact, Quail Ridge just closed its best holiday shopping season in five years, owner and founder Nancy Olson says.

The store is open nearly every day of the year and hosts readings, book signings, and other events that help to attract not only new and repeat customers, but also best-selling authors, local writers, and celebrities. Recent visitors include Paula Deen (pictured, above), Charles Frazier, Amy Sedaris, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Alton Brown.

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently caught up with Olson to find out how the store stays competitive in a tough market.

ISBB: Many independent bookstores have closed in recent years. Quail Ridge is, thankfully, not one of them. How have you remained successful?

Olson: We have adhered to our basic philosophy of exemplary customer service, quality of inventory, and commitment to community. We’ve worked hard to create an atmosphere of hospitality and to deal with everyone with integrity and professionalism. As to the books we carry, we feel we can best compete with the big-box chains by emphasizing different books, such as international imports. We carry the commercial thrillers, but don’t promote them in big stacks up front. Also, we offer an excellent program of events — authors, both regional and national, 12 in-store discussion groups, and town meetings on topical and literary subjects.

Increasingly, businesses are touting the “buy local” movement, but not everyone seems to have embraced its principles as completely as Quail Ridge. How active are you in your community?

indie bookstoreWe have forged partnerships with community organizations, both raising money for them and promoting their causes. For example, we raised $12,000 for the Wake County Literacy Council by bringing Cokie Roberts to Raleigh. These associations have been beneficial to our business, bringing us loyal customers and assuring successful attendance at our events. We also campaign for support for locally owned businesses, as national studies show that three times more money spent in local businesses stays in the community than dollars spent in national chains.

Tell us about what you’re doing with Google eBooks.

We have the opportunity to sell e-books through our website via an agreement between the American Booksellers Association and Google. We want to be “in the game” in this age of technology, and it is a growing part of our business.

How are you using other technologies to sell books?

We do it all — website, Facebook, Twitter. Social media has become a tremendous tool in promoting our events. I write a weekly e-newsletter, QuailMail, which goes to 4,000 subscribers and provides reviews, the bookstore events calendar, and other news. It has taken a long time to build the internet and Google eBook sales. We just don’t have the power of Amazon.

What advice would you offer fellow business owners — no matter their industry — about adapting to disruptive change?

After a period of pure panic at the beginning period of this volatile book market, we settled down and realized that while we want to remain visionary and more creative than our competitors, our goal must be to be more disciplined, more empirical, and more paranoid in order to survive. This has stood us in good stead, which was borne out by the holiday season, when our sales were up 21 percent — the best since 2006. We’re encouraged. I would advise all business owners to read and practice the basic principles of management laid out in the book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman. It’s been my business Bible.

Kevin Casey is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

Advertisement