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Profiles in Courage: Chats with independent bookstore owners, Part IV

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For us the question is, how many people want books the way we are delivering them? I still think that they’re a very viable group of people for quite a while.

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Q. What makes it worthwhile coming to work in the morning?

A. I like to play with books. I like to take books out of their boxes, to put them someplace where people will pick them up. I like to watch people as they pick them up. I like to buy books that I think you’re going to like and put them where I think you will see them. It’s very, very tactile and for me, my personality, if I could do that without any ever coming into the store, I would.

Q. RiverRun has become known for its author talks. What was your best author talk?

A. We hosted Barack Obama’s first New Hampshire appearance. And that was insane. We did it [offsite at a convention center] but we were the hosts. The publishers had no idea what they were getting into. But it came out great. It was free but you needed a ticket to get in, and we offered those tickets to our e-mail subscribers first so we were able to offer [our customers] something that they couldn’t get anywhere else. And to stand up there on the stage and look out at those 900 people and see that they were people I knew – that was something. By the time it was advertised in the newspapers, three-quarters of those tickets were gone and they had gone to people who were our core customers. It was satisfying on so many levels.

Q. What kind of town is ideal for supporting a store like yours?

A. Portsmouth is pretty much the ideal, and that’s why we opened the store here. To be far away from the strip malls or the big bookstores – frankly you can’t get far away from them anymore. Portsmouth has a lot of people who like to come downtown. People want to live here, to come to the restaurants and stores here. What you need for an independent bookstore is enough people who have money and education and then they have to get the fact that if they like browsing in your store they have to buy something once in a while.

The margin in the bookstore business is so small that you don’t need to lose your whole business to go under. You only need to lose 10 or 15 percent.

You need 95 percent customer loyalty. Sixty-five, even 75 isn’t enough. The average bookstore makes about half a percent profit on its sales – if it’s making any.

Q. What makes a good bookseller?

A. You have to know titles. The computers are not enough. The computers are great. They’re a huge help, but the customers never have the right information. The computer doesn’t help you when people are looking for “that orange book about such and such.” And the second thing is that you have to try to find books for the reader and not for yourself. It seems obvious, but this is especially true for the independents where maybe the staff is a little too highbrow for the customers. Within what we have here there’s definitely stuff I don’t like. But it’s decently written and customers do like it, and it’s my job to connect them with it.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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