"New ground, these days, is rare."--Sybille Bedford, Pleasures and Landscapes
The Information Highway seems to offer unlimited "new ground" to
explore. Bookstore Web sites tend to play it safe, however, as if in
fear that the online world is flat and they might fall off the edge
should they venture too far.
In my first column, I asked why independent bookstores had Web sites.
Now we'll begin a virtual pilgrimage to discover some answers; to find
out not only why bookshops create the sites they do, but what their
online expectations are.
For a number of understandable reasons, including issues of discounting
and shipping fees, indies aren't necessarily online to challenge the
Goliaths--Amazon or B&N.com--head to head. If a rock and slingshot
just won't work anymore, how can a bookstore stake a viable and
productive claim out here?
There are so many places to explore, but I'd like to begin with a small
bookshop in Baltimore, Md., called breathe books
. It's an example of
what can, or cannot, be done with limited funds and expectations. We'll
visit more ambitious sites in our travels, but breathe books proves
that even a modest approach can project a welcoming image and an open
window to interactivity; a feeling that there is a human being on the
other side of the home page.
Owner Susan Weis, who launched the site when she opened her store in
late October, 2004, says that she wanted her Web site to "be a
reflection of the store (and maybe me)--a warm, inviting,
non-intimidating space; a place to explore at leisure and to be able to
feel comfortable asking questions and just hanging out."
From the beginning, Weis focused upon communication rather than direct
online sales ("I didn't think, as a one-person shop, that I could
maintain it properly"), though the site does generate some e-mail and
She believes that the site helps her sustain relationships with
customers throughout the region. "We are in regular touch with them,"
she says. "They either e-mail or call me--we like personal contact
here. The e-mails come directly to me, and if I'm away, my employees
handle it. We answer everyone."
Weis displays a personal e-mail address, email@example.com
, but has
not found this to be problematic. "People feel more connected," she
says. "They see my photo on the Web site, so they know who is reading
their email. I find info@ addresses to be a bit cold and impersonal."
E-mails are current forwarded to her AOL account, though she is
considering a switch to Google's Gmail, which she believes has superior
options for sorting, filing and searching.
Despite the modest appearance of the breathe books
site, Weis is able
to garner a wealth of information about her online visitors. The
statistics page gives her an hour-by-hour read on hits, so she can
gauge the most opportune times to update. It also informs her "where
the person is on the globe. I was recently in India and Bhutan. I saw
that people I'd met were checking out the site because I had numerous
hits from there."
She's also interested in how visitors find her site because checking
referrals can be a useful tool. "It's great for marketing," says Weis.
"For instance, so many hits come from government or medical
institutions (Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, Social Security
Administration), so I can tailor my events for our primary audience."
While the breathe books site may not be a webmaster's dream, it does
showcase a personal and interactive approach to establishing an online
presence that is not always apparent on more sophisticated bookstore
"I don't think you can function in today's marketplace without a Web
site," Weis says. "It's a great way to inform people about who you
are--and a way to make your presence known." Without connection, there
can be no conversation. Without conversation, there can be no
Sometimes you can discover "new ground" online even when you don't venture all the way out to the edge.--Robert Gray
, founder of Fresh Eyes Now