Small-Biz Buzz: Writing the Book on Service

One community-oriented bookstore stands strong in the face of chain competition.
Author:
Publish date:

This new weekly series explores the customer aspect of small businesses, both from the customer's and business owner's perspective. If you have a small business you'd like to share, please email me.

Eat your heart out,

Barnes & Noble

(BKS) - Get Report

and

Borders

(BGP)

-- here's an independent bookstore that unearths rare finds, stays open late for customers and keeps it real for the community.

Customer

: Richard Myers, 38, head researcher for a financial online news service.

Hooked On

:

Community Bookstore in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

TheStreet.com: How did the Community Bookstore hook you?

Myers

: I wanted a copy of a contemporary play that was only published in China. I scoured the libraries and other bookstores, but no avail. Since I refuse to use my credit card over the Internet, I went to Community Books to order a copy.

I called the store back

when the book arrived. The clerk answered saying he was about ready to close, but he would stay open if I left right away. I don't think an online service would have been able to obtain a book so fast, and I don't believe a chain bookstore would have provided that level of accommodation.

What keeps you hooked?

The staff would always try to get

a book for me as soon as possible. One clerk obtained an

advance copy for me prior to it being released nationwide.

What kind of image does the store convey to customers?

They try to create an environment that is laid-back, yet professional.

Since the invasion of yuppies and baby strollers, Park Slope residents have become more uptight and guarded. Community Books serves as a small reminder of what Park Slope used to be like.

What is its most unique feature?

Ordering books that are important to those who live in the neighborhood and inviting authors to give talks and lectures on various subjects that are of interest to Park Slope residents.

Unfortunately I don't live in that neighborhood anymore, but I would go there because it had several author and book-signing events I found of interest.

What do you value in the small businesses you patronize?

Individual attention.

I then spoke with Catherine Bohne, owner of Community Bookstore, which has been in business since 1971.

Bohne took over the business in 2001. Start-up costs at that point would have been in the range of $300,000; annual sales today are approaching $700,000.

TheStreet.com: How do you differentiate yourself from chain bookstores?

Bohne

: By pretty much everything we do.

Our goal is to stand out in three areas: intelligence, of both staff and selection of inventory, magicness of environment (OK, not a word, but you know what I mean) and community involvement.

We really do function like one of the stores on Sesame Street, which ... would sort of make me Mr. Hooper.

How do you compete?

Our discounting is competitive, and in some cases better than chains.

Lots of people say they feel like

the store is another room in their home. Half the children in the neighborhood seem to hang out here too.

Chains don't have a piano, either.

Does your location help?

Well, being in the heart of Park Slope can't hurt, although shopping patterns have certainly shifted in the last 10 years, down to Fifth Avenue and south past 9th Street.

What image are you going for?

Smart, helpful and kind. Also funny, fun, cheerful, tireless and able to leap small buildings in a single bound.

Do you need advertising to create buzz?

Our newsletter is pretty keenly followed locally and definitely gets the word out, but we don't do any formal advertising.

What are your plans for the future?

Fixing the Web site ... getting investment money to double the inventory and then indulging in an orgy of book-ordering. Coming up with lots of really fun ... displays.

What is the best advice you can give to any small business?

Make sure you love what you're doing, because no one should work this hard for this little money unless they're really, really having a ball.