by Sheri Boggs
Moscow has the kind of downtown corridor that most small towns its size only dream of. Its Main Street is a "pedestrian priority" area with big leafy trees, plentiful bike racks and old-fashioned lampposts, and its town square is an informal meeting place and performance area. In the summer, the Farmer's Market takes over both Friendship Square and several parking lots every Saturday, and sidewalks are packed with laid-back, outdoorsy university types. But perhaps what's most striking is how little mom and pop stores seem to be thriving up and down the street -- including a performing arts venue, the stationery store, a climbing gear shop, a gem dealer, the yoga studio, and of course, Bookpeople.
At 30 years old (which it turns later this year), Bookpeople is anything but the new kid on the block. As such, it's the kind of business that is as much a part of the fabric of Moscow as Moscow is an integral part of its success. In spite of the fact that Hastings, Wal-Mart and Waldenbooks are all within a mile or two, the store shows no signs of suffering. It moved across the street in the mid-1990s and added a caf & eacute;, its shelves still full of the kinds of literary finds customers can get nowhere else. When asked about the store's strategy for staying in business in the era of the big chain retailers, owner Bob Greene offers a nod to basic good sense.
"It's not a written plan or anything, but we've always been aware of how we could improve ourselves and stay afloat," he says. "That was part of the reason we moved. Doing so gave us a bigger facility, of course, and we were able to add some services. But pretty much we've just tried to do what we've always done, but better."
One of the things Bookpeople has always done and continues to do is what the book industry calls "handselling." Greene and his staff understand what their customers are looking for and can often pair specific titles with specific readers, many of whom they already know on a first-name basis.
"It's all about being responsive to a particular place. The first thing you learn in bookselling school is that when you order something, you want to be able to put a name to the book," he points out. "It's the exact opposite of ordering by the pallet or truckload."
Greene says that the biggest threat to his business these days isn't the big box retailers so much as it is the Internet. In addition to competing with Amazon.com, Greene finds himself competing with other independent Northwest bookstores, specifically Powell's and Elliot Bay. Still, Greene has found ways to set his bookstore apart.
"We look for things that are both timely and long-lasting," he says. "We have one of the biggest sections on Lewis and Clark around, and we also have an extensive selection of outdoors titles and hiking guides."
Greene knows his way of doing business isn't easy, and that suits him just fine. "Because I'm a bear, I don't want to shoot fish in a barrel. I want to scoop 'em out of the creek with my bare hands. I don't want to do the things the easy way."
It's a good attitude to have considering the current economic climate. Greene says the biggest challenge he sees to his business in the near future is the bad local economy.
"Sales are way off," he admits. "But that's the economy. If my customers had more money, they'd be buying books. I call it the 'four legs of the stool of Moscow.' The U of I is taking a beating, and there's no mining or logging to speak of. Even farming's having a tough time. So when those four things are suffering, you feel it."
Publication date: 03/06/03