Peerless Book Store opened four months ago. That is to say, an independent bookstore opened its doors during one of the toughest economies in decades, in one of the most tumultuous times for the publishing industry since Gutenberg came along with his press. As I drive the twenty minutes to Alpharetta, just outside the Atlanta Perimeter, or, as the locals call it, the OTP, I have to make a conscious effort to bury my expectations, which are grim. After crossing the Chattahoochee river, I come to a typically unassuming suburban strip mall, the kind of location that hasn’t seen a bookstore in years. Before I even walk into the shop I am expecting the worse. As a book blogger, I dread having to write a review of a bookstore that doesn’t have a chance.
I’m in the book shop for five minutes, browsing the popular fiction section while one of the four co-owners, George Scott, wraps up a phone call. A few other customers mill about the Mystery and Romance sections. Scott talks animatedly about what I gather is an exciting book event coming up. Soon I will learn that, already, Peerless Book Store has over thirty author events lined up this year. Though they are a general new and used bookshop, it is clear by their bulging Mystery/Thriller and Romance sections that they satisfy a niche, catering to fans of these genres.
In the half hour that follows I will begin to understand how Peerless Books has come to exist and why, undoubtedly, it will continue to exist for as long as its fiercely loyal clientele permits.
Scott hangs up the phone and before I have time to identify myself he blurts out: “That was James Patterson’s publisher. James Patterson is going to donate 130,000 books to Books for Heroes. No, really.”
Scott is the founder of the nonprofit organization that accepts donated books from publishers, authors and customers and sends them in care packages to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the service men and women request certain books. Some authors sign them. Brad Thor, who spoke to a crowded room of fans at Peerless Books in July, personally signed fifty.
“Just to give you an example,” George says, selecting a hardcover book from a stack behind the check-out counter. “This one’s to Ken. Ken, many years ago, I hired him as a bookseller for Walden Books. And he was a good one. A very good one. He ended up going into the military about nine years ago.”
Frequently our conversation goes this route. George will be explaining his reasons for opening a bookstore and the name of a volunteer, co-worker, author friend or publisher drops into the conversation. A divergence is taken, an anecdote told and the thread is lost.
Or is it?
“My customers are my friends,” says George. “I’ve held babies within their first few months. They’ve been incredible friends over the years and they’ve kept me in this business. One customer/friend put it this way: ‘This store is not only your store. This is our store. We have wanted you to do this for ten plus years.’ That’s probably what we should have called it [Our Store].”
That sentiment seems to be shared by many. When George was wrestling with the idea of opening a bookstore, two friends approached him wanting to know what it would take. When he told them, they said, “Can you do it for half that?” In the following months, customers bought bookshelves from Borders or handed George the money to buy what was needed.
The community mindedness that has supported Peerless is not a one-way street, either.
“We’ve reached out to a lot of independent businesses to be able to be a part of what we do. Everything from our security company…just about everything that needed to be done we reached out to local and/or independents. Just business people who understand what customer service is. They’re not too big and they’ll put the money back in our community.”
Scott has helped with the Decatur Book Festival since its beginning, first as a bookseller for Chapter 11 and then working on the programming committee to help bring authors to the event. He views it as yet another opportunity to reach out to the community.
“Many of our customers in this area had never been to the DBF in all these years, and are now planning on going. We’re able to reach outside the perimeter and show them, ‘this is the Decatur Book Festival’.”
Though it’s clear Scott has years of experience working in”the businesses,” as he calls book-selling, he doesn’t talk about it in business terms. Rather, he talks about his friends, about the talented authors who teach their writing classes, about the events he’s excited about. Of course, this is their business model – customer service, good author relations, involvement in the community – but I doubt they think of it in such dry terms. For the folks at Peerless Books, your customers are simply your friends.