Phil Johnson looks at how a small bookstore survived: By becoming faster than the internet.
Certain business ideas seem doomed to fail. You can walk into a restaurant or retail chain and know instantly that its days are numbered.
That’s the gut sense I had when I learned that someone new had bought the Harvard Book Store – a comforting oasis for bibliophiles and casualbrowsers – just a few blocks from my office in Cambridge. In a town where independent bookstores have been folding faster than Starbucks can open coffee shops in China, this naïve optimist embarked on his new venture in the dark days of the recession, under the shadow of Amazon, and as e-books began their zenith rise.
Jeff Mayersohn, the new owner, elicited my sympathy, but I also wanted to get to know him. I respected his mission, even if I didn’t quite believe in its future. So, Jeff shocked me a couple of weeks ago, when he told me with a certain amount of pride and pleasure that he has been seeing double digit sales growth month by month over the last year.
I wanted to know how he managed to survive, let alone prosper, in the age of e-readers and the mighty Amazon. Over coffee, Jeff shared his original insight that led to his strategy for buying the store.
A former technology executive with a passion for reading and books, Jeff saw – like everyone else – that the digitization of content was destroying the neighborhood bookstore.
Imagine for a moment what it would feel like if people walked into your company and used the lobby to call your competitors and buy their products. That’s standard consumer behavior in a bookstore. People browse, find a book they like, pull out their smart phone, and order online.
Making an intuitive leap, Jeff wondered if the opposite could be true? Maybe access to the vast universe of digital content could also save the bookstore. Maybe the bookstore, while limited in inventory, could evolve in the digital world and become a destination where people had access to every digitized book ever published.
To truly compete, he would also have to solve consumer’s expectations for instant gratification and delivery. Jeff needed a complete production, distribution, and fulfillment model. He has likely shocked a lot of people by building one in his own backyard.
Essentially, Jeff installed a printing press to close the inventory gap with Amazon. The Espresso Book Machine sits in the middle of Harvard Book Store like a hi-tech visitor to an earlier era. A compact digital press, it can print nearly five million titles including Google Books that are in the public domain, as well as out of print titles. We’re talking beautiful, perfect bound paperbacks indistinguishable from books produced by major publishing houses. The Espresso Book Machine can be also used for custom publishing, a growing source of revenue, and customers can order books in the store and on-line.
You can walk into the store, request an out-of-print, or hard-to-find title, and a bookseller can print that book for you in approximately four minutes. Ben Franklin would be impressed.
But you don’t even have to go into the store to get a book. If you live in Cambridge and neighboring communities, you can order online and get any book delivered the same day by an eco-friendly Metroped “pedal-truck,” or a bicycle, as I like to call them. Beat that Amazon.
Marketers know that success comes from a complex formula, and Jeff’s strategy includes many moving parts. Harvard Book Store pays fanatical attention to customer service with an unrivaled staff of passionate and educated booksellers. They have spent years building a local brand. They bring people together with over 300 public events a year. They’re exceptional retailers with a frequent buyer program. They understand technology, and you can expect them to continually adapt.
Of course, Amazon has got nothing to fear, but that’s not the point. Harvard Book Store defended their market and they did it by leveling the playing field with a giant. You shop there because it’s the most effective and satisfying experience.
Ultimately the bookstore exists to serve a community, and Jeff devised a strategy to safeguard that mission. While people will always take the path of least resistance to buy a book, they still value the experience of browsing and spending time in a place that ignites their imagination. That’s the position that Harvard Book Store has defended.
It might sound audacious to say that one bookstore devised a strategy to counter the long reach of Amazon. But it’s no more audacious than Amazon’s conviction in 1999 that you could sell books over the Internet.