All in Your Business: Selling Books Their Way

booksBy Julie Chyna, executive editor of The Oak Parker

The last decade has seen numerous bookstores, large and small, forced to shutter their doors. Yet during that same time, The Book Table of Oak Park has not only survived, but has expanded. The “fiercely independent” Lake St. bookstore isn’t run by a big corporation, but rather by the husband-and-wife team of Jason Smith and Rachel Weaver—and the duo says that is part of the reason for their success.

“We live in Oak Park too, so we can be responsive to the community,” Smith says. “When we opened our first store [in a smaller space on the same block], it was always the two of us behind the counter. We interacted with our customers, and when they wanted something, we always said ‘Yes.’ After all that time, we’ve learned to anticipate our customers’ needs.”

“We love Oak Park and everything about it,” Weaver adds. “We’re Oak Parkers running an Oak Park bookstore. There’s no corporate entity in Ann Arbor trying to make decisions for our store in the suburbs of Chicago.”

Many Oak Parkers may recall that when the first The Book Table location opened in 2003, there was a Borders and a Barbara’s Bookstore within two blocks. However, Smith and Weaver (who met when they were both employees of another independent bookstore) say that wasn’t a concern.

“We weren’t worried because we were all doing different things,” Smith says. “There was a need for what we wanted to provide in our store. Each store had a different feel. We just kept doing our own thing and worked at maintaining our vision and being responsive to customers.”

It might also seem odd, to some, to open a bookstore in a small town that already has one large and two medium-sized library branches. Smith and Weaver disagree.

“We would never have opened a bookstore in a place that didn’t have a great library,” Smith explains. “It shows a commitment to reading. We love being down the street from a big library.”

Weaver adds, “It’s a special community that can support so many libraries and bookstores. Oak Parkers tend to be educated and value education, which means that they are likely to be book lovers. Also, Oak Park’s progressive values mean that the people here appreciate independent businesses.”

As any book fan knows, foot traffic is strongly related to book sales. Seeing a book in a store window or “just browsing” often results in bringing home new reading material. Smith and Weaver say that their location is another part of their success, as it’s uncommon for a retail area to have the consistent foot traffic that downtown Oak Park does. Parents with strollers tend to come in first thing in the morning, followed by a steady stream of people coming to and from work and school, with moviegoers and restaurant patrons coming in before or after their evening outings.

“We get a lot of what we call ‘accidental purchasers,’” Smith says. “People who just stop in not intending to buy something but they’ve got time to kill before their friends get here—then they find something great that they just can’t pass up and end up buying a book.”

Often, those “accidental” purchases are books that readers wouldn’t discover at other bookstores.

“We champion independent and university presses in a way that has fallen out of style in the chain world,” Weaver says. “This is a strange word to use, but in a way, we curate the collection of books we decide to sell. It’s a mix of what people tell us they want and what we think they might want.”

Smith adds, “It’s important to us that our bestseller list doesn’t necessarily match the national bestseller lists. We like to see something quirky on our list. That’s the benefit of being independent.”

Independent bookstores, the pair says, have a lot of power in bringing books to their customers’ attention. Since they’re not taking orders from a corporate marketing department, they can promote certain books simply because someone on staff likes them and thinks they’re worthy of a bigger audience.

“Rachel has recommendation groupies,” Smith says with a laugh. “There are customers who have read one of her staff picks and liked it so much that they keep coming back to see what her next pick is. They ask, ‘What’s Rachel recommending this week?’”

But it’s not just Smith’s and Weaver’s recommendations that count: “Now that we’re bigger, Jason and I aren’t always at the front counter anymore,” Weaver says. “But we went to a concerted effort to hire people who are committed to sharing the books they’re passionate about with our customers.”

The Book Table also holds events featuring their favorite authors—such as Patti Smith. The Book Table will be hosting the punk legend on October 11 at Dominican University’s Lund Auditorium. She will be talking about her upcoming memoir, M Train; her previous memoir, Just Kids, won the National Book Award in 2010. Tickets can be purchased at www.booktable.net/pattismith.

While running a bookstore of this size is a lot of work for two people, Smith and Weaver wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Being independent is the fun of this,” Smith says. “We’re not selling widgets. We’re selling something we love.”