When Heidi Hallett purchased Frog Hollow Books in Halifax’s Park Lane Mall a little over two years ago, she did so out of a lifelong love for literature. After almost a decade as a co-owner of The Coast, Halifax’s only independent weekly newspaper, she decided that it was time to turn the page on her profession.
“I have been a big reader ever since I was a little girl,” she says. “Books were my way of both escaping the world and making some sense out of it. I have always been a big supporter of Atlantic Canadian literature and believe that we have some of the best authors in the country here on the East Coast. I wanted to play my part in our great tradition of storytelling.”
Ms. Hallett is not alone in her struggles, as independent booksellers from coast to coast feel the pressure from the onslaught of deep-pocketed big-box stores, online purchasing, the high dollar and the cost of prime real estate.
Ms. Hallett is doing what she can to keep her dreams alive by spreading the word about regional scribes through book launches and in-store author appearances. “Local literature is a vital part of our culture here, and I am concerned that if more independent bookstores like mine start going under, we risk losing that history and heritage forever.”
Dave Hill is the manager of Munro’s Books in Victoria, one of the country’s oldest and most successful independent booksellers. He says that stores like Frog Hollow have to find and work with their core strengths. “The key is to focus her efforts upon the things that the big chain outlets or online sellers cannot offer their customers,” he says. “First and foremost, that means excellent service and expert advice.”
To that end, Ms. Hallett and her staff should always make it a point to engage their clients in literary chit-chat. “Bookstores are tailor-made for browsing and discussing ideas,” he says. “What she ideally wants is for the bookstore to become a point of destination for readers of all ages. Along with that literary expertise and those added personal touches, things like author readings and signings, special events, weekly or monthly theme sales, on-site contests, book clubs, having an activities area for children and even serving coffee and muffins will all add up to a higher volume of in-store traffic.”
He adds that Frog Hollow must then use its in-house and front-of-store display space as effectively as possible. “A real emphasis should be placed upon specialty products, such as local and regional authors and books,” he says.
“Ultimately, however, Hallett is going to build her reputation in the community through word of mouth and referrals.”
Eleanor LeFave agrees. President of the Canadian Booksellers Association and owner of Mabel’s Fables Children’s Bookstore in Toronto says businesses like hers must make the most of their marketplace. “We will never be able to compete with the Chapters/Indigo outlets or the Amazon.coms of the world,” she admits, “but we can find a good niche for ourselves and make ourselves a vital and vibrant part of the neighbourhood.” That means reaching out to the local community as well. “Getting involved with local literary festivals, or bringing books or book discussion into the schools or libraries is always a great way to keep up visibility,” she says.
“Sending out a weekly or monthly e-mail is an effective and cost-efficient way for Hallett to keep her existing customers up to date on current and upcoming releases and events.” Ensuring that the store’s website remains fresh and dynamic is a vital component of the marketing mix as well. That technology can also help to cut costs in other ways. “It sounds tedious,” she admits, “but by establishing best-business practices through process streamlining, Hallett will be in a better position to keep an eye on cash flow, stay on top of special orders and monitor inventory. With such a low profit margin, there really is no wiggle room for any kind of systematic errors.”
Excerpted from the Globe and Mail, April 28, 2008