By the time Borders went bankrupt, I had pretty much given up on the concept of the brick & mortar book store. After all, look what they're up against: an expensive distribution system, the high costs of leases and utilities, a sluggish economy, and heavy competition from online book stores and/or e-books. When the Borders where I worked was placed on the STORE CLOSING list, my co-workers and I began to search frantically for new day jobs. I ended up briefly at a grocery store, as a cashier. But it was an extremely demanding job, and it paid $3 an hour less than I had previously earned.
Life was looking pretty grim. My husband Ernie had happily settled in a new job with the Phoenix Public Library, and I was very pleased to see him happy again. But I was losing sleep. And then he told me that a lady from the Phoenix Heard Museum book store had left her card at the Borders where he still worked in the evenings. I felt like I'd been struck by lightning. “That's my job!” I said.
And it was. Miraculously, even though several skilled people had applied before I did (I was actually the last interview) they hired me. I've worked there ever since, and I love it. But I'm amazed, because it's an old-fashioned book store, and I thought I would never see one of those again.
By old-fashioned, I don't just mean brick & mortar, and I'm not simply referring to the fact that the books are hard copies. I also mean that the store is small, it's managed by someone who is extremely knowledgeable about books, and it's staffed by people who love books. I thought I was never going to see something like that again.
So you may be thinking, Great! There's hope for the brick & mortar book store after all! But it's not that simple. The Heard Museum book store has a lot in common with the book shops you see at National and State Parks. It carries regionally themed books: books about Native American culture, art, jewelry, basket weaving, textiles, pottery, folk art, kachinas, religion, folklore, and history. We also have books about Southwest archaeology, anthropology, geology, biographies, travel, gardening, wildlife, photo-essay, history, cooking, and children's books. The book store used to be a small corner of the main gift shop, so we also carry tourist stuff like dreamcatchers, bead jewelry, postcards, magnets, cards, CDs (from Canyon Records), T-shirts, mugs, and few few items from the main gift shop, including rugs, pots, folk art, and kachinas.
In other words, the books aren't the only thing driving sales in our store (people love those dreamcatchers). And the existence of the museum is what brings people to the store in the first place. They come to see the museum – we're just the frosting on the cake. After looking at the exhibits, they want to learn more about what they've seen. Or they want a souvenir, or they're grandparents looking for gifts for the grandkids. Maybe they saw Jesse Monongye's gorgeous jewelry in the museum, pieces that go for $10,000. They can't afford to buy a necklace, but they can get his beautiful coffee-table book for $50. Or they love the kachinas, and they want a book about how to identify the different types. Or they have a Navajo rug at home, and want to learn more about it.
Like the National and State Park shops, our store gets the customers who came for the OTHER thing, the main thing that got them to get in their car (or hop on a plane). They couldn't do that online, they had to visit the place. And we're IN the place, so they may as well stop by and shop. We can talk to them and use our old-fashioned sales experience to interest them in the books we love. That's the advantage we have over the online sites.
But we get a few old-fashioned book lovers too. And for that reason, I think well-placed small book stores may actually do all right in the near future. Like us, they probably would order a lot of their books from regional publishers. If they're knowledgeable about the books, and they have a good feel for what their local customers want, they could succeed.
So if you live in Phoenix (or you're visiting us), stop by and a take a look at the Heard Museum book store (Books And More). We've even got a coffee cantina. Buy the Navajo Times from us, get a cup of iced coffee, and sit at a table out in our courtyard, next to the fountain. It's a beautiful place, peaceful and good for contemplation.
I love it.