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SCOTT JAGOW: The bookstore chain Borders turns in its latest profit report today. Ho-hum, about $840 million in sales. Actually, Borders has been struggling a bit of late, but I doubt many independent booksellers will have much empathy. Those big chains have put a lot of ’em out of business and those that are left are trying some new ways to compete. Charla Bear tells how one store in Northern California is doing it.
CHARLA BEAR: These days, Kepler’s, an independent bookstore in Menlo Park, California, is full of customers. That’s unusual for independents, but customers like Barbara Rosston are keeping business booming.
It’s not that Kepler’s can keep books in stock like big chains can. It’s their personalized approach.
BARBARA ROSSTON: One of the people working in the children’s department remembers that I come in and remembers what books I’m looking for, which really makes me want to come back.
That made it easy for Rosston to join Kepler’s membership program. It’s not a frequent buyer club with a nominal fee that customers expect. It’s one where members give anywhere from $20 to $2,500 to keep the store alive. The perks — discounts and members-only events — are more of a thank you than an incentive.
Johanna VanEgmond filled out the membership form to preserve an atmosphere she can’t find elsewhere.
JOHANNA VAN EGMOND: You’re contributing to something great, something that’s very sorely needed in order to foster community in a neighborhood. And to keep these wonderful places from just disappearing, you know becoming extinct.
Kepler’s members have reason to think these stores will die out.
The American Booksellers Association says independent stores that belong to their organization have plummeted from almost 5,000 to less than 2,000 in the last dozen years.
Even Kepler’s closed briefly last year until new investors like Daniel Mendez stepped in. Mendez says the membership program allowed the store to keep going. Two-thousand members have contributed a total of more than $200,000.
DANIEL MENDEZ: With the membership we get direct financial support from them and hopefully we also get them to think about Kepler’s when they’re buying books.
Memberships can change consumer behavior, at least that’s what Michael Hoynes says. He’s a consultant and former marketing director of the American Booksellers Association.
MICHAEL HOYNES: You’re using the membership idea to reinforce the already good customer relationships that you have and make a good customer even a better customer, and a mediocre customer a good customer.
Hoynes says the membership concept is so new it’s hard to tell if it’ll make a major difference. But with mounting pressures on independent stores, it’s one way to get closer to a happy ending.
In Menlo Park, California, I’m Charla Bear for Marketplace.
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