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Indie Bookstore Reads its Local Community

Indie Bookstore

Saturday may be the official Independent Bookstore Day, with events planned across the country in celebration of your locally owned shop, but the good news for these local booksellers is that they seem to be thriving the other 364 days of the year, too. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. With competition in the real and virtual worlds, local booksellers need to be more than just a place to browse and buy books. They need to grow and change with their local communities, reflect their reading habits, invite local authors to be a part of the ecosystem while also carrying the national best-sellers that buyers demand.

Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, one of the largest indie bookstores in the country, has found the right formula. To help us celebrate Independent Bookstore Day, I spoke with incoming Tattered Cover owner Len Vlahos to discuss how he’s successfully integrated the bookstore with the local community to create a thriving business and gathering place.

Just one thing before you read the interview: when Vlahos talks about how “indie authors” can get their work sold in bookstores, he means self-published authors. To Foreword Reviews, though, “indie” includes all the wonderful work being done by smaller professional publishers around the world.

Indie bookstores and indie publishers don’t always see eye to eye. Many indies have a hard time convincing local bookstores to carry their work, so they’re forced to sell on Amazon. How can this gap be bridged?

Len Vlahos
Len Vlahos: 'The indie author should be well-prepared before contacting bookstores.'
It’s a great question with a long answer.

First, Tattered Cover—like most indies—has to believe there’s a market for a specific title in our stores before we’ll buy. Even with large format stores, we have limited shelf space and make decisions every day about what to carry and what not to carry. This is true regardless of the size of the publisher.

Second, there’s a wide spectrum of publishers that fall under the category of “indie.” Some indie publishers are distributed by Ingram Publisher Services, IPG, or other distribution companies, Tattered Cover has regular visits from sales reps from all the distributors, and we stock a large variety of those books. For those publishers with a small list and no distribution, we do our best to order when we think there is a market. For local, self-published authors, we have a robust consignment program (see below). It’s important to note, however, that we only work with self-published authors if they are local, or if the book they are publishing has a strong connection to Denver, Colorado, or the West.

Finally, and most importantly, the indie author should be well-prepared before contacting bookstores. Have a well-edited book; be familiar with our stores and rules; be able to tell us why you think there will be a market for your book in our particular stores. What is your marketing strategy? How will you help draw customers to the Tattered Cover in search of your book? Our goal is to make sure we’re presenting a selection of books that our customers will find interesting and unique. Help us understand how your book fits into that way of thinking.

What does Tattered Cover do to support local and indie publishers and authors? Could it be a model for other bookstores?

We follow a model similar to many other indie stores. We have a consignment program for local, self-published authors. It’s probably easiest to read about the details on our website. And again, this is a model already used by many other indie bookstores. I would advise an indie publisher—when they’re ready—to reach out to his or her local bookstore and ask what sort of plan they might have.

How much does a local bookstore need to also sell other “stuff” (coffee mugs, t-shirts, etc.,) to stay alive?

Indie bookstores have been doing really well over the past several years, so it’s not a matter of staying alive, but more a matter of enhancing the customer experience. Retail, over the last decade or more, has become much more about the providing an overall experience, and not simply a place to buy stuff. Tattered Cover was a bit of a trailblazer in this regard. We were among the first to put comfortable chairs and tables for customers in our stores; to offer coffee and light snacks; to offer a robust series of events; and yes, to sell nonbook gift items, too. Whether it’s Cards Against Humanity or a Gryffindor winter scarf, we believe the addition of select gift items provides a fuller, richer experience for our customers.

How much should local bookstores emphasize author readings, book launch parties, and other community activities? Is a local bookstore also a kind of community center?

Yes, yes, and yes! Bookstores are a great example of that “third place.” The place that isn’t home or work, where you can feel fulfilled and find a sense of community. We offer 500+ events a year, including author events, story times, comic book classes for kids, lectures for senior citizens, and so much more. We also do some big off-site events, including our annual Writers Respond to Readers conference, and our inaugural Colorado Teen Book Con, planned for this fall. We want to people in our community to think of Tattered Cover as a place where something interesting is likely to be going on.

You’ve partnered with schools for reading programs. How successful has that been?

This has been a new initiative for Tattered Cover, spearheaded by my wife and business partner, Kristen Gilligan. We’re developing a robust relationship with schools all over Metro Denver, and have already brought more than a dozen authors to area schools for events. This is not only good for business, but it helps to fulfill our mission of getting kids excited about books and reading.

What books are on your nightstand (or e-reader) right now?

(My nightstand … definitely my nightstand.) I’m currently reading an ARC of The Last True Love Story, an absolutely beautiful young adult novel by the acclaimed author Brendan Kiely (coming from Margaret K. McElderry Books in September); I recently finished the brilliantly written White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson, an ARC from Bloomsbury (publishing May 31) about the systematic injustices perpetrated against the African American community throughout American history, up to and including today; and I just listened to an advanced listening copy (ALC) of Redemption Road, the forthcoming John Hart novel from Thomas Dunne Books (May 3), which was not only gripping, haunting, and captivating, but is wonderfully read by narrator Scott Shepard. (We made Redemption Road Tattered Cover’s “Very Important Book” for May.)

Howard Lovy
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy

Howard Lovy

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