Books on display at A Book Barn in Clovis. Run by Dan and Peggy Dunklee, the store is heavily involved in the local community. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz
Written by The Business Journal Staff
Tucked away in the southwest corner of First Street and Herndon Avenue sits Book Nook, the only half-priced used bookstore in Fresno.
Run since 2008 by former delivery driver Scott Brown, the operations for the store are small, with no room for advertising, but a good location and loyal customers are able to keep his doors open.
“It’s never going to be rich, but it’s a good spot,” Brown said. “We’ve got a couple of restaurants and a gym, so we always have people moving through.”
The Book Nook and other local stores, however, are just one regional part of a national phenomenon.
Even as Amazon and other websites take over the shopping world, independent bookstores have actually been able to remain in business. Borders Group, Inc. closed in 2011 and Barnes & Noble laid off more than 1,800 people this year to save on costs, but new, independent bookstores have been opening up across the country.
This resilience has attracted the attention of Harvard Business School Professor Ryan Raffaelli, who has embedded himself over the last five years in studying independent booksellers across the country. The little bookstore around the corner, he said, has not only served to be a hope spot in the world of small retail, but a lesson on how to survive and make gains.
“So many of the things that the independent bookstores have faced, other industries are starting to experience,” Raffaelli said. “And they’ve been a rich source of understanding what are the ways in which the rules can potentially be changed to survive in today’s environment.”
While there have been closures in the Valley, the stores that are open are largely doing well.
‘A tactile experience’
According to Raffaelli, one of the things to attract him to the study of indie bookstores was their ability to weather several technological developments that many predicted would be the end of the industry – the two biggest ones being the launch of Amazon.com in 1994, and the introduction of the Amazon Kindle in 2007.
It was believed by many that the e-reader, along with the convenience of online shopping, would largely do away with the practice of going to stores to buy print books, but this has not been the case. Instead, the adoption of the e-reader flattened out over time and the demand for traditional books remains high.
“People are looking for a tactile experience in a digital world,” Raffaelli said. “And this translates not only into the written book itself, but also into the process of going about selecting and buying a book.”
Jean Fennacy, who operates Petunia’s Place, an independent bookstore for children on Palm and Bullard avenues in Fresno, expressed a similar view. According to her, the very act of browsing the store is part of the appeal.
“I think there’s a whole lot to do with the physical contact of a book, looking through it and having somebody to guide you,” she said.
Community, curating and convening
According to Raffaelli, booksellers have been able to survive declining retail world by using what might otherwise be seen as a weakness – their small size. Specifically, it gives them the ability to practice and master what he calls the “Three C’s:” Community, curating and convening.
In regards to community, Raffaelli said that the independent bookstore was one of the first industries to champion the notion of shopping local and supporting neighborhood shops.
“We have such a loyal customer base, and we have people who come in and thank us for being here almost every day,” Fennacy said. “There are definitely people who come to us because they want to support locally-owned brick and mortar stores – and they say it.”
Dan and Peggy Dunklee, who own A Book Barn, a used bookstore in Clovis, pointed out that they are also in a position to reach out to their community. This includes A Book Barn’s donations and support for Friends of the Fresno County Public Library, a nonprofit that supports library operations.
“There’s a lot more to it than just building a customer base,” Dan Dunklee said. “There’s building friendships, there’s building – as I keep saying – community. It’s all about that, and every bookstore that is successful has that.”
A unique collection
Another important aspect to the independent bookseller’s success has been the ability to curate books otherwise unavailable as they go out of stock at chain stores. Combining this with a bookseller that knows their product and customers results in a unique advantage in doing business. Raffaelli added that a skilled enough seller is able to “move across genres” in ways that online algorithms can’t to help their customers. This is especially true in bookstores with a niche market.
“We know what’s really popular with kids right now and we have a very wide selection,” Fennacy said. “And then we have a small collection of books for adults, but we know who the adults are that are coming in to purchase books, so we are really strategizing how we’re going to spend our money to meet our clientele’s needs.”
“We have things that are in this store from 1570 to last month, publish date-wise,” Dan Dunklee said. “A new bookstore can’t get something that went out of print four years ago.”
Often at large chains, books that go unsold have to be sent back, but independent sellers (and especially of used books) are able to archive it. The Dunklees said this had led to even Barnes & Noble sending customers their way.
A place to meet
During his research – which has taken him to more than 700 bookstores in 18 states – Raffaelli said he has noticed a phenomenon of the independent store being a gathering place for the local population. This extends not only to shopping, but also as a focal point for various local and neighborhood functions.
“These bookstores have become places where people in the community can come together through a lot of different things – whether it be through events, connections with schools – so on and so forth,” Raffaelli said. “A lot of the booksellers that I’ve interviewed are hosting over 500 events a year.”
One common event held by stores like Petunia’s Place and A Book Barn is visits by local authors. As the Dunklees run their own publishing company, Hummingbird Enterprise (HBE), many of these authors are people they themselves have helped to launch. There are also weekly readings by the former Mother Goose of Storyland in Fresno. Fennacy, meanwhile, also hosts writers, illustrators and a loyal book club that meets every month, among other events.
These events give independent booksellers the chance to not only meet new people, but also get people to browse their shelves.
Not all locations, however, have this option. At Book Nook, Brown said that the small space means little room for anything but his product.
“I’d love to be able to do book signings, I don’t have room for it,” Brown said. “Everywhere that I’ve got room that you don’t need to walk, I’ve put a bookcase there.”
The industry has had its difficulties, but the bookstore continues to weather the wave of technology. Offering what big sellers and websites can’t, they’ve become community hubs for hundreds of cities across the country, including locally.
“It’s real fun to go out and buy books online, and it’s really easy and all that,” Dan Dunklee said. “But when you walk into a used bookstore, or when you pick up a new book, whatever, and you get that smell, the print, and you feel the books – you can’t do that online.”