By Rachel Aydt
The “bookstore business” is a pretty loaded term nowadays. It’s downright Darwinian, with the embattled species of “brick and mortar” shops clinging to survival by jumping the tracks from Main Street to bandwidth. How long was it going to take for someone to figure out how to toe the line in the middle ground? Longtime bookseller Roxanne Coady, owner of R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut, has done just that with her new website, Just the Right Book.com, a subscription model that aims to wed excellent human-to-human customer service with the convenience of online shopping.
This is how it works: Readers take a quiz on the website which will determine their reading “mood.” The questions are very tame and direct: “On vacation would you rather sit on a beach or be taken on a tour by the locals?” Or, “Would you rather read Jodi Picoult or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?” The answers are studied by the staff of R. J. Julia Booksellers, who in turn, select a book for a reader. But this is not a one-off transaction. Instead, it’s the basis for a subscription, available on a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly basis and priced according to the format of book you want — hardcover, paperback or mixed. A monthly hardcover subscription will run you $385.00 per year; the cheapest option, a quarterly mixed subscription goes for just $85.
What inspired Coady? Four years ago, Coady found herself at a crossroads. She saw her business changing, though had no inkling of just how fast it would transform. This was before the crash of 2008, after all. She asked herself, should I open more stores? Try pop-up stores? Close the store? Change the business model? She decided to leave the store in capable hands for two months while she embarked on a journey to interview everyone she could, including the heads of the major publishing companies, B&N’s Stephen Riggio, owners of other indie bookstores, and visionary designer Ron Johnson.
“Ron is the one who brought the notion of design to Target, and who Steve Jobs hired to open the first Apple store,” said Coady. “He understood the value of theater and curation, and made me see that I was also in the education business.”
This realization was the beginning of a seismic shift in her business philosophy. Coady would need to transition the mission of her bookstore to a deeper place.
“At that point, everything became about ‘What does the book do for you?’” This process led her to shrink her inventory in a way that put the focus less on volume, and more on what the reader really gets from of the book; no longer would her store be just walls of spine-out displays.
Next, Coady decided to test the monetary value of what she knows her staff does best: choosing books for individual customers. How much might that service be worth? A personalized book-selection service run online is a great big idea, but with a great big problem attached to it. What, for example, would stop online visitors from taking the quiz, getting a thoughtful book recommendation, and then moving their sale along to the lowest–cost provider? That’s something that she’s still trying to figure out.
While Just The Right Book is currently 2,000 subscribers strong, the numbers show that in the last two months alone 15,000 website visitors have taken the quizzes. The discrepancy between the number of subscribers to quiz takers might be alarming, but for the following encouraging fact: a survey revealed that 50% of the quiz takers were prompted to acquire that book in some way — just not through them. For Coady, this drove home the belief that their book selection service is indeed a valuable one, but that other business models based on the fact need to be tested out. “Maybe we become a book selection service that people will pay $1 a month for, or $5 a month for, rather than the place where people purchase the book?”
So far, the relationship between the website and the bookstore has been synergistic, and the online experiment has fed the bookstore with new ideas. Not only is the stock being more thoughtfully chosen, but the events are as well. R. J. Julia Booksellers regularly hosts heavy hitting writers who stop over on their book tours between NYC and Boston, but now instead of having traditional readings and signings, they’re shifting the events to “A conversation with…” the author format. “The author likes it, the audiences love it, and it takes on an air of theater,” says Coady.
In 2012, the store will launch a series of thematic salons, whereby groups numbering from 25 to 40 will get together to discuss a larger social issue, such as “Do you grow an economy with big government spending or small government spending?” A book will always be the linchpin of these salons, which Coady believes will allow people the freedom to discuss the topics in a non-political way.
With the holidays coming up, the subject of competing against the cheaper online booksellers is at the forefront of Coady’s mind. She wants to have faith that the consumer will understand the inherent value of the independents, despite the fact that “we have gone from identifying ourselves as consumers, rather than citizens” — a collective identity morphing that has biased readers against spending extra to keep a small community-based businesses thriving.
“The problem isn’t all big banks and corporations,” says Coady. “Consumers want the lowest cost, but they’re not accustomed to thinking of the ramifications. They don’t like Wal-Mart because they don’t give health insurance, and they lock people in at night. You might have saved eight bucks buying your book [at Wal-Mart] . . . but we could have saved you $16 by telling you it was a bad book in the first place.”