I heard a rare thing from an independent bookseller the other day: optimism. Let me qualify that statement. The rarity came in light of recent weeks when the general opinion I’d come across (and the one I’ve held at times) has leaned more toward the other end of the spectrum. I suppose that’s normal for anyone investigating starting a business, as we have been, particularly when that business is selling books. Still, as anyone who has ever had their dream tested (or squashed) by the rigamarole of due diligence and business plans can understand, it’s a breath of fresh air to talk to some who’s been there, done that, is still there and doing that and, what’s more, is thriving.
Enter Sally Brewster of Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC. I’ve long intended to feature “Charlotte’s Favorite Bookstore” on this blog, but that intention took on renewed urgency when a Queens English professor, whom I respect, recommended Sally as one of the most knowledgeable people about the book industry in Charlotte. How could I delay another second with that kind of endorsement?
As far as layout goes, Park Road Books is large and well-stocked, expansive enough to compete with area big-box stores, while still retaining a cozy feel, helped by a nonfunctional fireplace and two dens of comfy couches and chairs. Like Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, the immediate impression upon walking in the door is that every single book purchased and shelved on the Recommended Reading shelf (which is unmistakeable as it is the first and most eye-catching that you come across and the one where the majority of the store’s visitors are gathered) has been read by some representative of the store. These are not titles pulled blindly from some monthly industry newsletter. They are not the same set of titles you’ll find in Quail Ridge of Raleigh, Malaprop‘s of Asheville or any other North Carolina independent, nor are they the bestsellers on the shelves of Barnes & Nobel just down the road; they are the titles specifically chosen for Park Road Books with Park Road Books customers in mind.
Owner Sally Brewster is easily spotted in the crowd; she is talking with customers, a mother and child pair, and teaching the young girl how to make Yola, the store’s mascot, a shelter rescue dog, do a trick. A few feet away, two store clerks are examining a cart of books-to-be-stocked and talking about…. books.
“Yep, no more copies of The Informationists,” one says of Taylor Stevenson’s wildly popular thriller and an obvious hit in Charlotte. Neither one seems too surprised as if it’s implied that a good book on their recommended reading shelf isn’t going to hang around for very long.
A little while later, Sally echos this confidence when we sit down with her in a pair of overstuffed couches at the back of the store.
“I’m optimistic,” she says, her relaxed manner and the laughter that often punctuates the conversation belying that optimism.
Although she has a background in publishing and twenty-four years experience as a bookseller, Sally admits that it takes more than business sense and a love of books to keep a bookshop afloat in these turbulent times.
“We’re fortunate to have a wonderful landlord,” she says, referring to 91 year-old attorney and philanthropist, Porter Byrum, who recently donated the busy Park Road Shopping Center to three NC universities. Byrum has been known to give preference to Mom and Pop stores and, as Sally alludes, to help tenants out in hard times, as in 2009 when independent bookstores took a hit.
Another factor to which Sally attributes Park Road’s success is the staff’s pleasant demeanor and customer service.
“I’m excited to come to work in the morning and I’m sad to leave in the afternoon,” she says, adding that the only drudgery in her job is having to fill out paperwork in the office when she’d rather be up front engaging with customers.
When asked about the effect ebooks have had on the store’s business, she shrugs: “Really, all it means is I’m not going to sell as many bestsellers as I used to, because they make up the majority of ebook sales. So instead of ordering twenty copies of James Patterson’s latest book, now I only order ten, which is fine by me.”
Ultimately, though, what is an independent bookstore if it isn’t a meeting place, an active member and an advocate for the community? Park Road Books couldn’t agree more and it is this commitment to serving their community that, perhaps, contributes most to their success. In addition to hosting book clubs, author events and panels that are relevant to their customer base, they make regular trips to schools, sometimes three in one day and always including at least one lower-performing schools.
So is she worried about anything? Amazon, she admits, is the book industry’s biggest threat. But after a momentary rant about tax laws, she’s positive again.
“People are afraid of change,” she says. “But we’ve been around a long time and we’ve weathered a lot of change already.”
She confirms what I’ve heard from other booksellers, that the main thing is to stay in tune with your customers’ needs.
By the time we’re finished talking I can tell she’s itching to get back to hers. Sure enough, when it’s finally time to leave, I have to wave to her over a crowd. They are laughing over a few lines of a particularly humorous book (which, of course, she has read), and I can tell by their expressions as they listen to her recommendation that they will not leave empty-handed.