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

Tom Holbrook
Tom Holbrook opened RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H. eight years ago.

[What do typesetters, shepherds, and independent bookstore owners have in common? That's not the setup for a bad joke – just a recognition that many traditional professions are under pressure these days, not the least of them the business of owning and operating your own bookstore. Facing the pressures of heavy competition from chains with deep pockets, a hesitant economy, and – most recently – assault from the likes of Kindle and the iPad, it is perhaps not surprising that membership in the American Booksellers Association has dropped almost 50 percent over the past 10 years (from about 2,700 members in 2000 to about 1,400 today). Over the course of the summer, the Monitor will be checking in with some of America's most beloved neighborhood booksellers to see how they are surviving or – occasionally – even thriving, in difficult times.]

Tom Holbrook opened RiverRun Books in Portsmouth, N.H., in 2002. At the time, the town was in the midst of a revival. Downtown real estate prices were heading up as baby boomers and others were finding the small city a great place to live and shop. The Civil War-era music hall around the corner was reopening as a live concert and lecture venue. An independent bookstore seemed a natural fit. Holbrook took a few moments to talk with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about his eight years in the business.

Q. The economic landscape has changed a bit since you opened your store in 2002. Would you do it again?

A. Oh yes, and I’d make almost all the same decisions. I chose 2007 to take out a large loan and buy out my business partner. Perfect reasoning – until 2008 hit. What we’ve seen is that all the screwups on Wall Street have tightened up credit on Main Street. I’m happy that the local banks have come out of this as well as they have, but they’ve come out of it very very conservatively.

The single thing hurting me most now is lack of credit, because it makes it hard for me to have the books in the store that I need to sell. The second thing hurting me is not e-readers. It’s Amazon, which is a horrible monster and not the publishers’ friend – although publishers haven’t figured that out yet. Amazon is China – in other words, at some point they’re going to turn around to the publishers and say, “You know, we have all your business and we don’t like this discounting and you have to change it.”

They’re 15 percent of the business – at least. To me, that’s a bigger problem than the e-readers. Because e-readers are about who’s buying books where. We’ve always had the struggle of, do you come downtown to buy your books or do you go to the mall and buy your books? Now there’s a third leg: Do you stay home and buy your books from Steve Jobs?

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.

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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