In our never-ending quest for intelligent and inspired individuals to interview, independent booksellers always come through. And Patrick Darby, owner of Novel Places in Clarksburg, Maryland, is no exception. After traveling the long and winding road to bricks-and-mortar presence, Novel Places opened its doors last May in Clarksburg’s rustic Historic District. Five months later, the store is offering everything from reader retreats to online book registries (think wedding registries, but more exciting). All this dedication and creativity, as well as the fact that it’s the newest literary hotspot in our neck of the woods, made this an interview we couldn’t pass up!
Atticus Books: Usually we find that booksellers have got a story to tell when it comes to how they came to the decision to open their bookstore. True for you too?
Patrick Darby: Yes. I’ve worked as a bookseller since I got out of college over 30 years ago. I started at Crown Books (don’t hold that against me), was Area Manager at Book Warehouse, and worked at university bookstores. I wasn’t happy at the last place I worked, because they were totally concerned about the bottom line, not customer service. We weren’t allowed to spend too much time with a customer to find out their preferences, or make a variety of recommendations. After my father passed away, I decided to try a bookstore of my own. It was a low point, and the job was getting too stressful. I immediately began preparing to open a bookstore, and the first thing I discovered was my blood pressure dropped 20 points. It’s still stressful opening a store and running one, but it’s an invigorating challenge.
AB: What would you define as your biggest obstacle to overcome in the opening of Novel Places?
PD: It’s still ongoing, but getting permits has been the biggest obstacle. I’ll start off by saying the store started online. The lease I was working on fell through, so I sold online while looking for a new location. I settled on a sub-lease at the coffee shop in Clarksburg. That business folded and I couldn’t afford the lease for the large space. I eventually ended in the current location as a full-service bookstore in a stand-alone building. Up to that point, I had all the permits necessary to operate, but getting permanent signage for the current store has proven difficult. It’s an unusual situation, given the store is in the Clarksburg Historic District. In this case, the historic signpost is on State Highway right-of-way. It took time to get permission to use the post for a sign. Now the problem is the county’s code requires a new sign to be set back from the edge of the property, which puts it in my driveway. The building is set too far back to be easily seen by passing traffic, so putting a sign on the building is ineffective. It’s been 3 months since we opened and we’re working with the Historic Commission to submit a request to the county for a variance.
PD: Even though it’s a rural community in Montgomery County, the town is growing rapidly through multiple development projects. When I was in the coffee shop, sales were good, and I saw a lot of potential in the demographics and community interaction.
AB: On October 15-16, you’ll be hosting a Reader’s Retreat called “Club Read.” What’s the idea behind a “reader’s retreat” and what should an attendee expect?
PD: I’m one of a number of stores promoting Club Read. It’s the first retreat for independent booksellers, and an opportunity for our customers to meet 12 authors who are popular among the book clubs. The weekend event is at a relaxing location, and everyone gets to enjoy quality time talking about books and meeting an author. Author appearances at bookstores are a group of people listening to an author for an hour, getting a book signed, and maybe getting a moment of time with them. This weekend is a limited number of people meeting an author at planned events, and having time to get to know them and have significant conversations.
AB: What do you see as the main goal of any event you host at the store?
PD: A successful event is when everyone has a good time and doesn’t want to leave. I want customers to feel they got something out of the event, met new people, and to participate in future events.
AB: As a newlywed, I love that customers have the ability to create a “Book Registry” on your website. What inspired the registry idea and what is your hope for it?
PD: Congratulations! I’ve seen wish lists on a lot of websites. Currently, it’s difficult to set one up on the IndieCommerce site, which is the webhost for my site. My niece and nephews always know I’m going to give them books, and now they tell me what they like so I don’t mess up. It occurred to me they could create a list and if anyone else wanted to give them a book, they could check it. From there, it was easy to extend it to any event, including weddings. There are so many books that help newlyweds.
AB: As an offerer of Google eBooks, how have eBook sales compared so far to traditional book sales? Do you see that changing drastically in the near future?
PD: I’m getting only a few ebooks at any time. Most of my customers want print books, and those that don’t, look to Amazon. There is a lot of educating to be done that will show the choices available to customers. The main point is to show that buying through my website will give me a percentage of the sales and support my store. The agency model has leveled the field so that the prices are the same for everyone. Sales of ebooks are jumping up dramatically every year, but they are still a small percentage of overall book sales. It will continue to grow, but there are reputable experts who believe print books will be viable for a long time. I try to be realistic about the future, and in fact, have begun the process to sell ereaders.
AB: In a recent blog post, you described your attitude towards the future of independent booksellers as “optimistic… As long as people want to meet authors, and book groups want someplace to meet, there will be brick and mortar bookstores.” Is all the doom and gloom prophesied by many in the industry way off base?
PD: When new technology rocks an industry, there are many who quickly jump on the demise of traditional business models. Throughout retail history changes are a natural part of business, some cataclysmic, but those that adapt will succeed. I think it’s a mistake to compare bookstores to other retail businesses, because there are more differences than similarities. That doesn’t mean bookstores won’t face similar setbacks, but I believe they will continue and prosper. The main difference, as I pointed out, is the bookstore is a meeting place and destination. It’s a place to socialize with people of similar tastes and ideas. Bookstores can augment books with cafes, live music, and social events centered around books and authors. It doesn’t matter what format you use to read the book, the store fills the natural desire to get together.
AB: Perhaps the elephant in the room in any interview with a bookseller these days: The Demise of Borders.
PD: Booksellers sincerely mourn the loss of Borders because it was a bookstore, thousands of fellow booksellers lost their jobs, and it leaves a void in the community that can’t really be filled by an independent. Independents will move in to the area, but they can’t provide the volume or reach the customer base of a big box store. I won’t deny my relief the Borders near me closed, since it will help my business, but my challenge is to get the customer’s attention and try to provide the services they expected from Borders. The industry suffers from the loss of Borders because inventory is reduced, authors may not be signed, and the debt that needs to be absorbed can be crippling for publishers, especially the small independents. We can debate their demise for years, but it was more than ebook sales as reported. What made me saddest about Borders closing was meeting and knowing the employees during the last days. When they heard I was opening a bookstore, they bent over backwards to set me up with fixtures and tips. They loved the idea that part of their store would live on in another bookstore.
It will be the hardest thing you ever do, with little or no financial reward, but realizing the feeling of bringing people together for the love of the book is tremendous.
AB: What are your words of wisdom for booklovers out there toying with the idea of opening their own indie bookstore? Is it worth the work?
PD: If you really love books, and can’t imagine your town without a bookstore, then opening a bookstore is worth the work. It will be the hardest thing you ever do, with little or no financial reward, but realizing the feeling of bringing people together for the love of the book is tremendous. You also have to love retail, because it will be hard work, and you will deal with difficult customers and bad days. That also means you have to have a great, positive attitude. Try to get some experience in retail and take the Paz & Associates course on bookselling. I learned on the job, before Paz, and it took much longer. Talk to as many booksellers as you can. We love to brag about our bookstores, and laugh over our gaffs. Make sure you do your due diligence on location, community, financing, and leasing. It’s best to own your building, especially in this economy. Get the community involved in the build out and opening of your store, and that will result in loyal customers. Be prepared to give back to the community, and that they will probably expect a lot more than you’re able to give. Don’t cry when you tear the cover off paperback returns. You’ll never be able to read all the books in your store.