Business Unusual: Minnesota Bookstore Owners are Binding Together for a Holiday Campaign

20 Minnesota bookstores are using the power of partnership to drum up holiday sales.

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moon palace bookstore
Discover how the "Shop Local, Shop Early" contest is a win-win for booksellers and customers

“If it’s not a robust holiday season for your local bookstore, it might not be your bookstore for much longer,” warned Robert Martin, executive director of the national Independent Booksellers Consortium.

These days, many independent bookstores are experiencing a real-life page-turner as they nervously wait to see how 2020 ends. Will the mystery turn out to be a horror story or a redemptive fairytale? As most bookshops rely on holiday gift sales for a big chunk of their annual revenue during normal years, those already hanging by a thread due to the pandemic are now facing a truly make-or-break month.

The plight of small booksellers is a big deal since independent bookstores have become nostalgic mascots for the small-business sector. For every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $68 stays in your community. Spend $100 at a national corporation, and only $43 recirculates locally.

“Bookselling is not an easy business,” Martin, an avid fan of literary fiction, maintained. “It occupies a unique position in capitalism because at its heart it’s altruistic, and it manages to survive on the slimmest margins imaginable.”

He should know. As a book lover with a background in business consulting, Martin is also the man behind theindependentbookseller.com, a resource website providing free tools “for and about booksellers.” His latest project is assisting small businesses in his home region of Minneapolis-St. Paul with a strength-in-numbers approach during this unprecedented time.

The plight of small booksellers is a big deal since independent bookstores have become nostalgic mascots for the small-business sector. For every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $68 stays in your community. Spend $100 at a national corporation, and only $43 recirculates locally.
bookstore interior
Interior of Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Shop Local, Shop Early” contest

In response to the pandemic’s toll on the economy, Martin is helping 20 bookstores organize, promote, and execute the Twin Cities Independent Booksellers “Shop Local, Shop Early” contest, aimed at getting customers through local doors and visiting small business websites (Amazon who?). The promotion follows the likes of previous “passport” campaigns that encourage bookstore-hopping. Once someone makes a certain number of visits to any of the participating stores (in person or at their online storefront), they qualify to win a gift card redeemable at those same businesses.

The contest is modeled after the annual Twin Cities Independent Bookstore Day Passport (which traditionally generates hundreds of sales in a single day) and similar programs by bookstore alliances across the country. The idea is to get local stores joining forces to drum up business rather than simply competing on their own.

“I think it’s an affirming thing to see traditional competitors coming together to support each other through a difficult time.”

“Anytime you can have multiple perspectives come together, things improve,” Martin said of the power of partnership. “I think it’s an affirming thing to see traditional competitors coming together to support each other through a difficult time.”

“We hope this contest will build more enthusiasm for the fabulous independent booksellers in the Twin Cities,” said Angela Schwesnedl, co-owner of contest locale Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis. “The ‘Shop Local, Shop Early’ contest is a win-win for booksellers and our loyal customers.”

The “Shop Early” part is key. The bookstore supply chain is hurt by both a downsizing printing industry and the pandemic’s postal-service slowdown. The sooner customers order their books (or pre-order them), the smoother the supply chain can function.

“We are grateful for the sustained outpouring of community support during this difficult year,” said Matt Keliher, manager of another participating store, Subtext Books in St. Paul. “Unfortunately there remain many obstacles that make fulfilling last-minute holiday purchases challenging for our small businesses.”

With so many sudden changes happening — in how people work, shop, and live their daily lives — Martin encourages small business owners in any industry to be aware of their community’s needs and remain flexible. He said to “stay top of mind as much as possible,” before emphasizing, “but listen, listen, listen.”

So what motivates him to listen to and empower independent bookstore owners?

“While booksellers must be extremely savvy business people to succeed despite the constraints of their model, I have never once met a selfish bookseller,” he mused. “They’re here for other people, and that inspires me to be there for them.”

wrapped books in bookstore
Gifts from Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minnesota.

To take part in the Twin Cities Independent Booksellers “Shop Local, Shop Early” contest, read the complete details here and visit any (or all!) of the following participating small businesses:

Birchbark Books

Black Garnet Books 

Chapter2Books

Cream & Amber

Dreamhaven Books

Excelsior Bay Books

The Irreverent Bookworm

Magers & Quinn

Milkweed Books

Moon Palace Books

Next Chapter

Once Upon a Crime

Paperback Exchange

Red Balloon Bookshop

Storied Owl Books

Subtext Books

University of Minnesota Bookstores

Valley Bookseller

Wild Rumpus Books

Winding Trail Books

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