How One Neighborhood Bookstore Takes on Amazon

In the era of Amazon and eBay, what can a small, bricks-and-mortar retailer do to survive? In a few words, build a community, says Eric Whittington, founder of Bird & Beckett Books and Records in San Francisco’s cozy Glen Park neighborhood.

Whittington (pictured) has kept his independent shop alive for 14 years, despite a tidal wave of digital competition, by making the store an integral part of the neighborhood.

“People think of this as their little club, and I do nothing to disabuse them of that notion,” he says. In fact, he does quite the opposite: The store has hosted live jazz every Friday night for the past 10 years, as well as literary and other events, such as poetry readings and book club meetings.

Driving Sales With Events

The Friday-night performances generally attract 20 or 30 people, many of whom know one another and attend frequently, he says. One neighbor invariably brings a few plates of cookies and others bring snacks to share. Admission is free, but Whittington requests a donation of $10 to help pay the artists, and most people comply. When the tip jar runs short, he pays the artists himself.

“If you treat people like they’re your neighbors, it will make them much more inclined to patronize you than the chain stores,” says Whittington, who frequently entertains conversations about music and literature. “A lot of my customers know they can save 30 or 40 percent by buying the books on Amazon, but they turn a blind eye to it, at least part of the time, because they want the store to be here.”

Although the performances initially hindered business, because it’s harder to shop while the stage is occupied, they eventually boosted sales. “People come back and buy books or browse while they listen to the music and buy something,” he says.

Catering to Customer Needs

Live events aren’t appropriate for every neighborhood business, of course, but supporting the community is always a positive move, Whittington says. “If you’re running the cheese shop across the street and a person comes in and wants a certificate for a [school] fundraiser, you give them a certificate.”

Meanwhile, although many other bookstores have adopted a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy and now work with Amazon and other sites to sell paper-based and electronic books, Whittington isn’t interested. “I’m not selling automobile tires. I’m selling books, and they’re going to stick around and, therefore, bookstores will as well. Books are displayed better on a shelf than online,” he says.

That may not be the conventional wisdom, but the 57-year-old is so determined to keep his doors open that he holds down a part-time job as a word processor. He explains that the store’s profits are paying for the debt he incurred when he started the business by taking over a failing women’s bookstore around the corner. He moved to his current, larger location  in 2007.

The move helped the business, and after years of paying off the debt, the end of the red ink is in sight — another two or three years will do it, he says. “And that means I’ll be finally paying myself a salary. That’s a good thing, of course, but really this is about the books, the music and the community.”

If determination, passion, and community can keep a store alive, Bird & Beckett will be hosting jazz — and selling books — for many more Friday nights.

About Bill Snyder

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill@billsnyder.biz and follow him on Twitter at @BSnyderSF.
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