How To Make It As An Independent Bookseller

Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store has been a focal point for the city's literary community since 1974. Owner Joyce Meskis explains the challenges of operating an independent bookstore in an ever-changing climate, and the future she sees for the nation's independent booksellers.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Here in Denver, hundreds of writers drop by the Tattered Cover every year: Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Garrison Keillor, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In a tough economy, in the age of the Kindle and big-box bookstores, the Tattered Cover thrives as an independent. The store recently made the jump into selling used books. If you work as - at an independent bookstore or if you used to, tell us your story on the trials of independent booksellers. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're joined in the studios of Colorado Public Radio by Joyce Meskis, the founder and owner of the Tattered Cover. And thanks very much for being with us today.

JOYCE MESKIS: You're very welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: And I have to confess to a point of personal privilege: It's a wonderful store, and I have rarely had a better time than in places like yours.

MESKIS: Well, there are many independent bookstores across the land that will offer wonderful venues for you and their readers and serve you with great enthusiasm.

CONAN: Yet it's - there are hundreds. There used to be a lot more.

MESKIS: That's true, and that is something that concerns us obviously as we look to the future of bookselling and publishing in this country. However, there - while there are changes in our industry, transition, absolutely, there's lots of opportunity as well.

CONAN: You can get almost anything these days with a couple of clicks of a mouse from one of the big online booksellers. What's the role of an independent bookstore? What makes it different and important?

MESKIS: Well, the independent bookseller has also been able to provide the same number of books through a visit or in today's world with a click of a mouse as well. So the difference between the two is not quite so great in that way. What the independent provides is personal contact and the community connection, and that is a cultural legacy that is important to maintain and inspire as our - inspire our future.

CONAN: What prompted you after decades of being a new bookseller of going into the used book market, too?

MESKIS: Well, we've talked about it for about 35 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So a quick decisions.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MESKIS: Not to be too quick about it. And, of course, the name Tattered Cover lends itself to used books and was confused for many years thinking we were a used bookstore, so we said, OK, we're finally going to do it. And it's one more opportunity to serve our customers who are interested in collectibles and in less expensive editions.

CONAN: Less expensive because, obviously, they're used, obviously, so they're - unless they're first editions.

MESKIS: Gently used, I might add.

CONAN: Gently used, you might add. Where do you get used books?

MESKIS: Our customers, actually, bring them in and trade them for credit, and it's just a cycle that continues moving forward.

CONAN: Estate sales, are you involved in that?

MESKIS: We're not at the moment, but that may come down the line. Many of our colleagues are in other parts of country and, I think, serves them well to.

CONAN: How do you get along with the Barnes & Nobles and the big-box bookstores of the area?

MESKIS: Well, personally, we get along very well in terms of a collegiality within the city. Certainly, while we're competitors, we recognize that we're in the same industry. When it comes to the corporate policies, perhaps, we may have a quarrel from time to time as we have in the past with litigations and so forth, but those are resolved, and we move forward.

CONAN: We read a lot about the benefits of competition. It brings prices down. It brings more choices for consumers. Has that been the product of the competition with the Amazons and Barnes & Nobles?

MESKIS: Well, certainly, competition does all of what you've said, and that's important in our form of government and our society. What we strongly support, however, is fair competition and not unfair competition relative to the legalities that we face as booksellers.

CONAN: We're talking with Joyce Meskis, who's the founder and owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver. I should say bookstores. There's more than one now, aren't there?

MESKIS: We have three.

CONAN: All right. 800-989-8255, if you work in the independent book business or if you used to. Let's see if we can go to Sharon, and Sharon is on the line from Redwood City in California.

SHARON: Yes. Hi. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

SHARON: I am a strong supporter of independent bookstores. I never buy my books anywhere else. And I work at a local, wonderful independent known as Kepler's. And what I've noticed is we have the regulars who come in and support us and they love us and they buy from us. But we also have the people who come in and pick our brains because independent bookstores hire people who know what they're talking about, and then they leave and go order on Amazon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: They leave and order on Amazon. Why?

SHARON: Because they want it cheaper. They want it shipped to their door. Amazon can undercut our prices. They cannot match our expertise, but they can undercut our prices, and then the sales tax in this area.

CONAN: Joyce Meskis, is that your experience?

MESKIS: It happens. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I was locking through the store and I did see someone taking notes on their phone, relative to price competition.

CONAN: And how do you deal with it? I mean, obviously you need to have those people who know what they're talking about and can point consumers to the right kind of products. But how do you deal with that competition?

Well, it's an educational process with our customers, that's for sure. The books - the community bookstore provides a cultural base and it's very important to the community. And for us to keep hammering that idea home is part of our job.

Sharon, some of the community efforts that you do there at Kepler's, what do those involve, the readings by authors, that sort of thing?

SHARON: Always reading by authors. We actually have started to charge for some of those, because people bring in their books they've bought on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble. We don't charge for all, but we're charging for some in order to survive, and it's either a purchase of the book or a gift card at the store. So it's not money, you know, to randomly hand it over for an event.

We do a lot of outreach to the schools. We have events at the bookstore. And, of course, we have community partners so that books purchased at our store, we'll give a percentage back to whatever your cause may be.

CONAN: It's interesting, charging for the author reading. Authors don't really much care. Maybe a lot do, I think. But the financial incentive, they don't - as long as the book gets bought somewhere, that's pretty much fine with them.

MESKIS: Well, it seems so, but the - but at the same time, the authors, most of them, realized that it takes a diverse bookselling community, whether it be online or bricks and mortar stores, to support their efforts, and that's what we're about. We want to have as much diversity as possible to give the consumer, the reader, the most opportunities to access information in books that they love.

CONAN: Sharon, how is Kepler's doing?

SHARON: It's a struggle. It's an everyday struggle. You know, the best we can do is offer a lot of really good customer service, you know, with book sales, like people who love books and make sure people know that we're here. And if they don't support us, we can't be.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

SHARON: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Virginia, Virginia is calling from Eureka Springs in Arkansas.

VIRGINIA: (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air.

VIRGINIA: I've had a bookstore there for 34 years with my sister. We have a customer base that ranges from St. Louis to Kansas City to Tulsa to Little Rock. And we've been there because we have the books the people can't find in the chain stores and they're not going to find anywhere else, and especially now they're not even finding them in the library. And I've been encouraging people for the last 10 years that now is the time to open independent bookstores, because we constantly hear from people how they can't find what they want in the chains. A lot of people do not want to order over the Internet, and they spend all their time looking for independent bookstores everywhere they go.

The thing is, I think bookstores - independents need to find their niche, develop their market. And we don't need to be directly competing with each other because there are so many books out there. And there's so many books out there that people go in the chains never see at all. I mean, there's 825,000 new titles published every single year.

CONAN: What kind of books do you have in your store that you can't get at the regular bookstore?

VIRGINIA: Well, we have loads of books on sustainable farming. We have books on alternative energy. We have books dealing with the alternative views of politics. We have books on Native American. We have a great children's section, because we really believe that children should be informed on what's going on in the world.

It's not so much the type, it's that we pick everything ourselves, which is also the advantage of having an independent store as opposed to some buyer in New York just randomly picking this milquetoast selection that goes right down in the middle. I mean, we constantly have people come in and say that they haven't seen three-fourths of the books that are in our store anywhere that they go. So there's a lot of books out there that never - that people never see because there aren't as many independent (technical difficulties) chains just don't bother with them. They actually (unintelligible) our little drop in the bucket.

And one thing I'll say about the chains is everyone has this idea that they can't compete against the chains. But you know, I've been in this business long enough, but I remember in the '80s, there were seven or eight different chains, two of them were even discount chains. They've been artificially and unfairly propped up by the publishers all this time, and yet now we're down to two and neither one of them is making it. They both are struggling. So I say obviously there's something wrong with that business model, because even being artificially propped up, it's just not making it.

CONAN: Thanks...

VIRGINIA: And I'll tell you also, everybody says about the e-books. I think it's a real fad with a lot of people. We have a lot of teenagers come in and buy books. And they're supposed to be ones completely and totally enamored with the e-books, and they want real books. They want real books.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And continued good luck to you. I wanted to ask...

VIRGINIA: Thanks. I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you. Joyce Meskis, find your niche. That seems to be pretty important.

MESKIS: Yeah. Absolutely. From my own experience, just in the last couple of weeks, I was in a very small book shop that I was not familiar with in Grand Lake, Colorado, and the proprietor was waiting on another customer and talking about all of what she could provide for their particular needs. And the store was tiny but it had kids' books, it had the bestsellers, but it had a very fine selection of local interest books. And the store proprietor was also telling the customer about how she could provide downloads for e-books through Google. And, you know, size does not necessarily mean that you can't provide wonderful service.

CONAN: We're talking about the past and the future of the independent bookstore with Joyce Meskis, founder and owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store, you know, in Denver, which is where we're visiting today at the studios of Colorado Public Radio in Centennial, Colorado. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Susan in Tulsa. God save the independent bookstores, best places in the world. There's nothing like browsing in a cozy bookstore, handling the books and enjoying the little extra reader-ish things they carry too. You just can't experience anything like that online. If you're fortunate, there might be a resident cat too. And I have to say one of the great differences, if you're know what you're looking for, Amazon can provide it, no fuss, no muss. One of the delights of a bookstore is finding things you didn't know you were looking for.

MESKIS: That's right. Absolutely. The other side of it, though, is that the customer needs to understand that in order to maintain that kind of environment and that kind of experience for them, you need to buy something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's go next to David. David is with us from Santa Barbara.

DAVID: Yes. Just a quick, quick comment. I - we had three big bookstores here in Santa Barbara and they're all gone now. We have one small independent bookstore and our little used bookstore has only 200 square feet, but we've been here for 20 years. And I think your guests have said that customer service is the most important thing. It's what brings people back.

CONAN: How is your used bookstore? You're separate from the independent store?

DAVID: It's separate from the independent bookstore, yeah. But we have been a used bookstore for 20 years now and same location, 200 square feet and we, you know, we've been doing OK.

CONAN: That's good to hear. I've always wondered about used bookstores as somebody who hangs out and has done too much of that probably in my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: How can you bare to sell some of those things? They're your friends.

DAVID: They are our friends, but they're going to new friends. So they're going to new people and I think that's just the most fun part of this...

CONAN: If I were in that business, I think I might have a test for some of those people to make sure they were good friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVID: Oh, yeah. I totally understand that, but you know, we have our favorites. We have our own personal collections that keep growing and growing and growing. But you know, that's - like I said, that's part of the fun of it.

CONAN: Thanks very much, David, and continued good luck to you.

MESKIS: It's an occupation hazard.

CONAN: Your friends - selling your books?

MESKIS: No, working in a bookstore is an occupational hazard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Emily, and Emily is on the line from Steamboat Springs here in Colorado.

EMILY: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

EMILY: Great. My family owns Off the Beaten Path bookstore in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and my parents bought the store about five years. My dad is an ex-neurologist and my mom is an ex-nurse. And we had no, you know, prior experience in this but the bookstore was such an asset to the community and no one was going to buy it - it was for sale. So we stopped in and bought it and it hasn't been most lucrative business. It's been really hard with e-books, but it's such an important part of the community to have an independent bookstore for people to come to. And I am just hoping it will stay around for me to go into the family business as well.

CONAN: Are the kids your age, are they buying books or are they buying e-books? They're reading on their iPad...

EMILY: I'm 24 years old and a lot of my friends have asked me if they can get a job at the bookstore because it's such a fun place to hang out, so we have a coffee shop. And I'd say people my age are reading, but I do see a lot more Kindles and books like that. Our store has started selling e-books on our website but only for iPads, you know. Obviously we can't sell for Kindle and stuff. But we do sell e-books on our website.

CONAN: Kindle is...

MESKIS: Proprietary.

CONAN: ...proprietary to Amazon and...

EMILY: Right. Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...but you were saying also, Joyce Meskis, your website can provide some of the same kind of services as an Amazon.

MESKIS: Yes. We can certainly order books and provide books through our website that we have in the store. People use our website for a number of - in a number of different ways, not the least of which is just informational. And they want to see if we have it in stock, may not want make a phone call, and they can just check.

CONAN: Emily, we hope you're a proprietor of a bookstore in a not too distance future.

EMILY: I hope so too. Yes. I'm just trying to keep connection with the community and make people realize that independent bookstores are more than just a store. They are a place to meet and greet and make friends and hang out and build community.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

EMILY: Thank you.

CONAN: And do you see the electronic services, the e-books and the Kindles, that sort of thing, are they going to be your primary competitor in the future?

MESKIS: I think you can't stand in the way of the freight train of change and it will become part of what we're about as the industry moves forward. We certainly feel in our store that the print book will stay with us for a good long time and I hope forever.

CONAN: Joyce Meskis, good luck to you too. And thank you very much for dropping by to see us today.

MESKIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Joyce Meskis, owner and founder of the Tattered Book Store, joined us here at Colorado Public Radio. Tomorrow it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a talk with marine scientist Ellen Prager about some of the slimy and splendid creatures that live in our oceans.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Centennial, Colorado.

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