A New Business Model for Bookstores. . . from an Interview with Chris Morrow General Manager of Northshire Bookstore • Manchester, Vermont

“The whole industry is changing,” Chris Morrow acknowledged in his Northshire Bookstore office.   “The industry is certainly in turmoil, but things have shifted in our favor.”  Chris, whose parents started this Manchester, Vermont destination store, explained that over the last year and a half eBooks sales growth slowed considerably as print books solidified their base.

Chris Morros

Chris Morrow

Chris sees great opportunities:  “There is this opening to explore different business models.  Right now, we are the unpaid showroom for books. We do the marketing and get half the sales. The discovering of the books is still happening in the stores. It is interesting.”

Part of Chris’ driving force is his commitment to his employees, the community of book lovers, and the environment, all in addition to the financial bottom line: i.e. socially responsible business practices.  These practices will be the foundation to the shift in business model — in fact they may drive its success.

Monetize bookstores role as social change agents
“We need to create a business model around helping to move society in a direction it needs to move to.  We need better distribution of energy and goods, as well as retail manufacturing for local sustainability. We need to look at our use of resources and resource management. It is clear we need to get off of fossil fuels and away from our consumptive way of life.  It is time to get beyond consumerism as our way of life.

“I’m not a small store,” said Chris surrounded by enticing books and creative counterparts. “There will be some Mom and Pops that will stay around because they don’t need to take money out of the business. Other bookstores will have to be very diversified. There will have to be a conglomeration of products offered, such as print on demand. There will always be print bookstores, just like there are vinyl (record) stores; there will be boutique bookstores like that. The rest of us independent bookstores will have to diversify.”

The question is whether this diversification will be founded on local bookstores role as social innovators.  For example, Chris spoke of the idea of a preview night to support the mid-July SolarFest (www.solarfest.org) in Middletown Springs, Vermont.  “I am experimenting and trying to tie into this new business model using our marketing arm.  I can try to leverage that into also supporting SolarFest, in this case.  Where is the business model? That is what I am exploring at the moment.”

Chris created a panel on climate change, featuring activist Bill McKibbon. While the panelists were  all authors, it was more of a public conversation about climate change. “It is me being able to use the book store and access to the authors to highlight causes of interest to me.  I am extremely interested in environmental issues.”

In the past Northshire would invite authors to speak about their new books, there would be a signing, and the store would sell some books. Chris upped the ante to have events that are more issue-oriented.  “This is unusual for bookstores because there is no money in it,” Chris smiled. “It is getting harder and harder to run a bookstore, so our ability to do that sort of thing is lessening.”

The New York Times floated one idea to keep bookstores in the black — charging for author events.  Chris explained, “Bookstores spend a lot of time and energy getting authors here.  People come to the events and never buy the book.  It is a nice hour and a half out, and bookstores are trying to monetize aspects of bookstores in various ways.”

Creative ways to support employees — even under financial stress
“We’ve always had that sort of family business supporting the community through our employees.  In the past I spent a lot of time on the employee side of things, pushing the social responsibility mandate, and also expanding what we did in the community,” said of his past focus at Northshire.

“Strategically, I now run the company.  I have a staff liaison, but no HR department.  The Wellness Coordinator is really the point person for getting initiatives off the ground, such as the employee healthy eating initiative, an exercise machine in the building, a smoking cessation program, etc.  On the side, she also coordinates periodic storewide lunches, and a bunch of other small things around employee wellness.”

Northshire Bookstore employes 40 employees including the part-timers. Without the funds for a Sustainability Officer, it falls on the Wellness Coordinator to explore what type of initiatives the employees are interested in and put them together.  “In the past it was more haphazard, which is why I directed someone to coordinate it and get feedback.  There is a big squeeze on time and energy and I want every initiative to be valuable.

“We also have a Community Connections Coordinator.  She coordinates with local nonprofits such as a kids reading and nature program with the Equinox, etc.  We try to raise awareness through marketing Northshire Bookstore neighbor-to-neighbor.”

Chris finds the SR policies result in not only decreased turnover, but “a nicer environment for employees and an enhanced the workplace atmosphere, which is key.  The community-based work was always going on, we just enhanced it.  It certainly increased the bottom line, it drives sales.  The bottom line is how I manage the store in relation to the top line.”

“Employees are highly invested in a commitment to excellence and not necessarily within the social responsibility rubick.  It is about the books and a commitment to excellence in customer service.  They take pride in being able to read and communicate precisely about books, putting the right book in the right person’s hand at the right time.  There is a real art to that.  There is a real collaborative aspect to it.”

Although the image of the bookstore is not tied up in being a socially responsible organization, in fact it is a socially responsible business.  “We have people who take pay cuts to come work here because it is a good environment.  Physically and emotionally this is the hub of the town.  That is a big source of satisfaction for the employees,”  Chris noted that Northshire started out as an 1,000 square foot store, and over time, in very small increments, has grown to 10,000 square feet.Northshire Bookstore

“One of the luxuries you have as a business owner is shaping the business toward your own priorities,” Chris talked about his 1988 re-entry as an adult into the family business.  “I worked with my parents for a few years, they’ve always been involved in the community.  The term “socially responsible”. . . neither my parents nor our employees would not use that term, but that is what we do, who we are.  The store has always been active in community involvement.  With the environmental initiatives, that is definitely me driving the bus.”

Local imperatives drive state mission
“Book stores, historically, have been catalyst for change.  With big box stores and Amazon, we have been reinforcing the Buy Local message,” says Chris of his work establishing Local First Vermont.  “There are little Local First groups all over the country.”  There are a couple national organizations that are networks of all the networks such as BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) on whose Board of Directors Chris served, and AMIBA (American Independent Business Alliance).

Chris became the Founding President of Local First whose members are local business owners, professionals, nonprofit leaders and government representatives who are committed to preserving the character and prosperity of Vermont’s economy, community networks  and natural landscape.

The Local First mission and vision is:     “To preserve and enhance the economic, human, and natural vitality of Vermont communities by promoting the importance of purchasing from locally owned independent businesses.  We envision a robust and sustainable economy fueling vibrant communities, built (in part) on the cornerstone value and practice of “buying local first”.  Local First is now a program of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.” Chris is a past member of the VBSR Board of Directors.  (http://vbsr.org/local_first_vermont/local_first_about_us/)

“What I did is an extension of what they Local First was doing at the state level.  Then I started new initiatives on my own.  I went to Oberlin College which has a very strong public service component.  I think some of it is related to that.  Any good bookstore is intricately tied into the community by its very nature.  Bringing ideas and entertainment to the area has always been important to us,” Chris explained.

SR is not a luxury, just part of what we do
“It certainly is easier to manage when things are growing rather than when you are just managing,” Chris spoke of the industry challenges.  “However, socially responsible policies are not a luxury, it is just part of what we do.  I am spending time to install a 16KW solar array on our roof through the Efficiency Vermont’s SPEED, a feed in tariff program.  We put in the solar and they buy the electricity at a set rate for 25 years.   I have had to fill out a myriad of forms, as well as spending time and money with the accountant to figure this out.  On the surface, it has nothing to do with running a bookstore, although we have a display in our sustainability section on how we are doing this.

“We are also monitoring energy savings and I think it will be a decent ROI (return on investment).  It will not be huge, but it will be worth doing, especially considering the other non-monetary aspects as well.”

SR will build the model
Chris will continue to make these choices as he opens a second location in nearby Saratoga, NY, right on Broadway.  “It is booming over there, the fastest growing county in New York.  It is a college town with a strong local base,” he enthused.  His excitement was palpable as he shared plans for his new shop.  “The National Endowment for the Arts expounds on how important reading is to education,” Chris noted the support from NEA.  “Education is a foundation for a fulfilling life, for community vibrancy, so it is a big part of our mission to promote reading to kids.”

Chris said he will stay focused on changes in the book industry, reacting to them, and shaping them to Northshire’s advantage.  He, with others in the industry, will be looking for the business model that keeps bookstores at the center of their communities, there to knit communities together and promote social change.  If anyone can do it, Chris Morrow is a top contender.      http://www.northshire.com

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb