Indies know books! A few thoughts on the importance of indie booksellers.

The awesome editorial team at GeekWire recently asked us for our thoughts on a new subscription service from a big, scary online retailer.  We won’t mention them here, so we’ll just call them… Voldemort. Please support GeekWire by checking out the article there, and support us by sharing their article widely:

Here is a lightly edited version of the questions asked by GeekWire and the answers we provided them, but with the name of the retailer changed, of course 😋

GeekWire (GW): What does this move by Voldemort mean for your business? 

Reading Bug (RB): Voldemort’s return to books validates what we’ve known all along at The Reading Bug, that physical books are relevant and important – especially in childhood development. Reading a book out loud with mom and dad, receiving a book as a gift with an inscription, discovering and making your way through a chapter book for the first time are all important milestones that develop a lifelong love of reading and learning in children. Since our family founded our independent children’s bookstore in 2008, we’ve been focused on young readers and great books, and despite a push from Voldemort and others into digital formats, we’ve seen continued growth and success.

With Voldemort entering the subscription box space, we’re of course worried about the impact they may have on our market, but we plan to continue doing what we’ve always done best, focus on the tangible, emotional experiences of discovering, gifting and reading books. We believe that’s an experience and value that only independent booksellers like ourselves can provide and that Voldemort cannot compete with.

GW: How do you feel Voldemort’s service compares to yours, based on what they announced?

RB: We are children’s booksellers. We eat, breathe and sleep children’s literature. We have story times in our store 6 days a week and witness, firsthand, how children respond to the books we’ve selected. We work with local schools to bring authors to our communities and learn about how they create their art. We speak with children and parents from all walks of life and develop a specific understanding of what books appeal to what ages, reading levels and experiences, and we put our reputations on the line every time we recommend a book.

We began Reading Bug Box to extend that local store experience to families and communities that don’t have a local bookseller and we put all our knowledge and passion into finding the right books for each child – appealing to a picky reader or an avid one, helping find books for children with learning disabilities, or providing titles that match to a child’s interests or life situation. We listen to feedback and adjust our selections, we write personal notes of encouragement to readers, we create games – like Summer Reading Bingo – to encourage children to push their boundaries, and we care deeply about the experience of every child as they unbox their books. Those are the features of our service that make us unique, important and valuable – and they are the features that Voldemort’s service cannot compare to.

“Anyone can put books into a box and ship them – Voldemort, probably better than most – but that’s not what books and reading are all about.”

GW: What has been the impact of Voldemort on your physical retail store in San Carlos?

RB: We opened our bookstore at a time when many local bookstores were closing and when Kindle sales were spiking, so Voldemort has always had an impact on the way we think about doing business. We set out to do what they do not – provide valuable, intimate, engaging customer experiences. Even our store design reflects this. We have a bookstore designed like an enchanted forest, with open spaces for community events, story times and reading. We also are serious about maintaining our children’s literature expertise. It may be easy to search for and find a specific title on the Internet, but where do you go when you need to find “the perfect book for a 4 year old girl who loves horses and is about to become a big sister?” or “a 7 year old boy who is having trouble finding any books he enjoys reading?” You go to your local independent bookstore, of course!

All that said, it’s a tough market, and we do see pricing pressure from businesses like Voldemort where customers are increasingly making all of their purchases. To counter, we continue to do what we can to educate, entertain and engage – which takes constant re-invention of our business.

  • In 2011, we expanded our retail location to nearly double its original size, adding more books for early readers and teens and an event space to host book-themed birthday, author visits, story times, craft times and more.
  • In 2015, we started Reading Bug Box (as a Kickstarter project) to expand our customer base.
  • In 2018, we began an original story podcast, Reading Bug Adventures, engaging children in a digital medium, opening their imaginations, and introducing them to new books and concepts.

With Voldemort’s size and scale, they’re always a threat – but the pressure forces us to think differently and focus on our strengths.

GW: Any other thoughts you’d want to share?

RB: Of course!…

As a local, independent bookstore, we saw a need for something that was different in the book subscription box world, and thought that we were uniquely positioned to provide it. Most subscriptions are fulfilled at a fulfillment center and everyone gets the same thing.  We wanted something more personalized, more like the service we provide customers who walk through our doors. As a result, The Reading Bug uses our expert bookseller staff to curate each box to the child’s unique age, interests, reading level and other criteria, we don’t just lump kids together as “3-5 year old boy,” for example. Just like books, readers come in every shape and size – and a one-size-fits-all service doesn’t deliver on what it is that makes books special.

Reading Bug Box is not just a book subscription, it is an extension of our primary business as an independent children’s bookstore. And just like in our book store, we have long-time customers on Reading Bug Box, who stay with us because our selections grow as their child grows.

There’s a risk, of course, that our message gets drowned out by Voldemort as they collect your personal data on Echo devices, market aggressively to their millions of Prime subscribers, and aggressively undercut local businesses on pricing. That’s something we don’t have the means or the platform to compete with – but as long as people value to special touch of an independent bookseller, spread the word about us and the service we provide and, importantly, continue to shop at their own local, independent book stores, we still have a chance!