Sunday, June 26, 2011


On February 16th, Pete and I were getting ready for work--it was super early, about 6:30 a.m.--when he got a text from his boss. The message told him that Borders had just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and that he and his peers, instead of going to the district general manager meeting they'd all been dreading, should go to their stores and be there for their staffs. An hour and a half or so later we, in my store, got the list of stores that would be closing. Pete's store was among the disproportionate number of California stores on the chopping block.

We got the list of stores from the internet. Pete got news of his store closing from me. His boss never called him to personally tell him the news. The realization that this was how it would be did not surprise us. Except for one robotic conference call during which the district manager read verbatim from a list of talking points and never let a single iota of human feeling slip, Pete would not hear again from her.

No big loss.

The day--a mere three days later--that his store went into liquidation, customers and fellow merchants began to approach Pete with questions. Why? What are you going to do now? Will you be okay? The most interesting question he got, though, was this one: Why don't you open your own bookstore?

Why would anyone want to open a bookstore? We're a decade and more into the age of Amazon, meaning that anyone can get any book for 99 cents plus shipping (and Bezos still gets richer). Digital book readers are making it possible for everyone to carry a library of a thousand plus books around with them at any time. Costco and Sam's Club routinely discount books 40 to 50%, and even Target has a reasonably large book section. Superstores offer 100,000 titles...and are closing at an alarming rate. What can an independent bookstore possibly offer that these can't? And how can an independent bookstore ever hope to garner enough business to remain solvent, let alone--gulp--compete?

Because people love books and they love bookstores. And although there is hardly a book that can’t be had for a song on Amazon, a website will never take the place of interaction with a person who reads. And although the e-reader is convenient and portable, it will never take the place of books. And even though you can get a deeply discounted bestseller at Costco, you won't be able to find a section devoted solely to California crime there, you won't be able to have a conversation with a bookseller about what she's read and loved lately, you won't be able to bring your toddler in for a storytime on Saturday morning.

You can at an independent bookstore.

A website can make recommendations of works a reader might like based on browsing history and other objective factors.  But a website can’t ask questions, find out what the reader likes and, more importantly, why he likes it, so as to make truly personal recommendations. A website can’t determine that just because a reader has only purchased books on current issues in the past doesn’t mean that she isn’t hungering for a little romance or adventure in her reading.

A bookseller can.

An e-reader can’t reproduce the timeless art found in every illustration in Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or Madeline.  An e-reader has no presence, no heft, no smell. It’s sleek and beautiful and utterly impersonal.

A bookstore, particularly a small, independent bookstore, is completely and utterly personal. The books for sale there are chosen, each and every one, by a person. Not by a machine, not by a corporate buyer in a windowless cubicle halfway across the country.

So that's why the answer to "Why don't you open a bookstore?" is, "We will!" Yes, it is a risky decision. Nothing is guaranteed, and even the most loyal customers have been trained by the superstores (yes, by me, and by Pete) and by Amazon to expect deep discounts we won't be able to give them. But we hope that the depth of the experience we can give, and the breadth of the knowledge we posses about books, will inspire our customers to dig a little deeper into their pockets and purchase their books from us.

Yeah, it's a gamble.

I won't bore you with the ins and outs, ups and downs (and downs and downs) we've had since that question was first posed. I will simply say this. After four months of wheeling and dealing, planning, despairing, and maybe even a little praying, it looks like it's going to happen.

Although there are some final things to be hammered out--like a lease the landlord and we can both live with--the Book Frog will metamorphose from a tadpole of an idea into a full-blown community bookstore by summer's end. There are, of course, many steps remaining on the way to this metamorphosis, steps such as painting, carpeting, fixturing, buying and shelving the books, inputting all the inventory, setting up the website, but still, God willing and the creek don't rise, we will be selling books out of a 2700 square foot space in Rolling Hills Estates, CA (mere yards from the old Borders location) within a couple of months.

We'll be documenting the process here, on Facebook and on Twitter (@TheBookFrog), and hope you'll follow us.

Remember: read local. The livelihood you save may be mine.


EnriqueFreeque said...

Wow. That's inspiring.

You gave me goosebumps.

Here's to the Book Frog!

Here's to the maverick spirit of indie bookstores and their courageous owners!

Here's to your dreams overriding your risks and reaping future rewards!

Here's to yours and Pete's success!

I'll be throwing some money your guyses way, don't you worry, whether it's online or whenever I can make it out that way.

Screw the deep discounts we've been programmed to expect. Your niche expertise and eclectic mix (please tell me you will also stock innovative fiction and classics?!) should more than make up for higher prices. And it's Rolling Hills Estates! Good Lord, what a perfect clientele for higher prices! And you've no brick and mortar competition in the neighborhood to speak of either, eh?

I'm so excited for you both. As long as there's lots of booknerds like us around (and there's tons of us out there) your store will remain relevant and, knock on wood, solvent.

At the Book Frog, you won't just read it, you'll ribbit!

Aeyan said...

So ridiculously excited for you! A better pair of indie sellers I cannot summon. Who knew the mines of superstore-dom couldn't scrub away the humanity? Woohoo!

Aeyan said...

Woohoo! So glad the mines of drudgery that were superstore-dom didn't scrub the humanity and indie away! Cannot wait to trek down and (holy moly) talk books!

Best O' Books said...

I don't know you personally but I almost cried reading this! What a wonderful, heartfelt post! I wish I lived in CA for the moment so that I could visit your store :)
Was always a dream of mine to open a bookstore/coffee shop, but (minus) money, (plus) age and (equalizing) illness have told me no. Way to go! Much success and good luck--indie is awesome! Rae, Best O' books