Greg Lenhoff - Post 2: Survival of the Smallest
In the last post, prompted by the multitude of questions about why I chose to open in Detroit, I addressed the issue of place and the role it plays in the conception of my business. This time, I'm going to tackle the other question that comes up when I tell people what I do for a living: How does a small bookstore survive?
This question, of course, touches on the broader issue of how any small retailer can survive in an era where big box stores and malls dominate the landscape. Walking into one of these rectangular palaces, one feels intuitively that this place will have every book (or cooking utensil, cleaning supply, or whatever else it sells) one has ever heard of. How could a little spot like mine ever hope to compete?
The solution can be found in the sacrifices these places make in order to maintain their warehouse-like collections. Let's look at my business, bookselling, for insight into what I mean. Gigantic bookstores, in my opinion, are some of the worst places to browse. They are very good at having exactly the book you came in looking for, which is why they're designed with library-like efficiency. If you've got a title or author in mind before you even walk through the doors, you can make a beeline straight for the right section and you’ll be checking out in no time.
But they are not very good at encouraging exploration or discovery, nor is there any way one could reasonably expect the employees to know about every book in the store. I've tried to take advantage of these deficiencies in my comparatively small space. Instead of attempting an exhaustive approach toward inventory, I've chosen to curate a smaller sample of things. I emphasize discovery and novelty, displaying as many books as possible with their covers facing out and stocking a sizeable collection of things that people would not see elsewhere in the area. I want people to come in without any idea of what they're looking for and walk out with something entirely foreign to them.
This is a strategy all small retailers can use to combat their giant, wealthy competitors. We can afford to be specialist experts, whereas they must be conforming generalists. We can talk to our customers confidently because we know and love what we're selling. People come to us because they have grown tired with shopping, eating, and living in anyplace; because they want to be a part of this place.
Detroit is filling up with specialists and we're always looking for more. So long as your passion is true, you'll always outshine the sameness that surrounds us.