At first blush, it seems likely that someone's been smoking a little too much something: the new owners of the
Booksmith, mainstay of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood,
most famous as the center of the 1967 summer of love, are a
husband-and-wife team with strong business backgrounds. Praveen Madan
is an engineer and MBA "by education," he said, and has worked as a
consultant and headed marketing and business development for a small
software company. Christin Evans has a similar background; although she
went to Vassar, she got an MBA, then worked as a consultant and in
high tech. "My path to becoming an entrepreneur and becoming a
bookstore owner has not been obvious," she commented.
The pair are "avid readers" and have visited many bookstores around
the world. "We're like bookstore tourists," Evans said. The couple has
known about the challenges faced by independents and believed some
of their business skills might help. They considered acting as
consultants to bookstore owners, believing that there was "not enough
innovation in the business model. Many stores are run as they were
30-40 years ago," Madan said. But "many booksellers wouldn't use free
advice if we gave it to them." So then they considered buying a store.
The decision, Madan continued, "came down to doing something we cared
deeply about" rather than continuing in "nice, cushy, well-paid
Gary Frank, who had founded Booksmith 31 years ago, had been trying to
sell the store for five years. Madan and Evans were attracted by the
store's location at the "crux of several neighborhoods."
best-known of those neighborhoods is, of course, Haight-Ashbury, which
"still has the spirit of the summer of
love," Evans said. The store serves this clientele in a variety of
ways--it even has an Altered States section, which contains titles
on drugs, dreams and meditation. Books on the Grateful Dead, Janis
Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are also perennially popular since the store
remains a mecca for people around the world who love the summer of
love, which marked its 40th anniversary this year.
A kind of commemorative title that the pair said they would do very well with is just coming out: The Sixties,
a collection of photographs by Robert Altman (Santa Monica Press,
$39.95, 9781595800244/1595800247), a staff photographer for Rolling
Stone whose pictures chronicle some of the major figures and events of
the time, including the March on Washington, People's Park in Berkeley,
Haight-Ashbury, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia, Mick
Jagger, Jerry Rubin and Grace Slick.
Other nearby neighborhoods are Cole Valley, where many people working
in high tech live, and Buena Vista Park, which has
affluent residents. The store serves "many audiences with many needs,"
The pair were struck by many other positive things about Booksmith: it had a website before
Amazon and helped develop IBID; the store had a reputation of being
well-run; the staff, many members of which have Master's degrees, is
Madan and Evans's first move
after buying the store stemmed from
their consultant training: "we solicited input," as Evans phrased it.
The pair spoke with more than 100 customers, authors and staff members
about the store's strengths and weaknesses.
Soon the couple drew up what Evans called "a hit list of quick things"
to change or emphasize. For one, they wanted to build on Booksmith's
sense of community. The first "simple, little" step to build on this involved inviting
customers to write shelf talkers. "We realized that many long-term,
loyal customers have favorite books and authors they want to share with
the community," she commented.
Longer-term projects to continue emphasizing community include assisting people who have a
variety of needs for which finding appropriate books may be just part of a process. So when people are
going through a phase of life, planning a trip or getting married, "We
want to help people make connections and find each other," Evans
said. The store also plans to offer a "just-in-time book club around a
particular book"--that is, a book club that forms only to read a particular title and disbands afterwards.
The store aims to increase the number of events it puts on in-store and provide more space for community-related activities.
As Madan said, "It all goes back to one, simple principle: putting the
customers at the center of the business and of thinking. It seems a lot
of independents have gotten focused on book sales and transactions."
He believes customer service is an obvious strength for indies. "As a
small business, bookstores can go out of their way to make customers
happy and provide great customer service that large corporations can't
provide." He gave an unusual example of how to do this: despite their
"visceral hatred" of Amazon, booksellers should, he said, make Amazon's
reviews and metadata available in stores since Amazon probably has the
best search engine and is an excellent place to find reviews.
Evans added that because the cost of technology has come down
dramatically, many booksellers should reexamine the Internet.
"Booksellers should think of it as an evolutionary thing and realize
that as a local store, your advantage is being local and technology
used in a smart way can help your store."
Booksmith is also "experimenting with a high level of customers service,
helping customers find the books they need, much as a hotel concierge
"There is no silver bullet," Madan continued. "We're trying lots of
ideas, seeing what works and what doesn't work. We're not hesitating to
bring skills from outside businesses."
As part of their efforts, earlier this year Madan and Evans launched a site called litminds,
which features interviews of literary innovators and is a venture
separate from Booksmith. "Does this sell books?" Madan asked. "It
doesn't, but the goal is to create a gathering place online for people
interested in these issues, a kind of literary salon."
It's no surprise that what strikes the new owners of Booksmith as most
difficult about the business is what Madan calls "the black hole in the
back of every bookstore, the energy- and time-sucking" effort of
dealing with publishers and wholesalers. "We buy from 250 different
publishers, and it amazes me that each publisher has a different way of
doing business, from ordering processing, invoices, coop," he said.
"It's amazing how complicated it is to make sure you have books on the
shelves that customers want."
By the way, former Booksmith owner Gary Frank is still a busy man. He is a member of the Booksmith's
advisory board, founded by Madan and Evans. He remains the landlord of
the store and has set up his own
venture, selling a Plexiglas shelf talker holder. For more information about his invention,
go to shelfwiz.com.--John Mutter