The holiday season is upon us, and what better way to spread some goodwill than celebrating the independent bookstores that have it all year long? This month’s Independent Bookseller That Rocks Our World is Jill Miner from Saturn Booksellers in the resort town of Gaylord, Michigan. Jill graciously took some time during this busiest of seasons to share with us just what makes Saturn so outstanding, why ebooks are still a tough sell, and what bookstore memories are bringing her the most joy this December.
Atticus Books: When we say Saturn Booksellers is an award-winning store, we’re not kidding. You’ve received the Michigan Retailer of the Year Award, the Golden Pineapple Award and the Best Bookstore and Best Staff Awards. What do you think makes the store such a noteworthy place?
Jill Miner: Most definitely my staff. In a small community like Gaylord, having just the right mix of personalities is critical, as the one-on-one dialogue with customers is what moves the books out the door. Our customers are much more likely to come in wanting to know what we think they should read as wanting to know where such-and-so book they read a review of is shelved. We always have several high school and college-aged kids working with us, and they add a real family dynamic to the atmosphere. We are a closely-knit group, and have a lot of fun at work. I think that customers can sense that, and it makes them feel like our store is a comfortable place where they can have fun, too!
AB: What makes Gaylord an ideal spot for an indie bookstore and coffee shop?
JM: Gaylord is a resort town, so folks are coming up north wanting to be entertained and to have an experience they might not get at home. As more and more of the country re-focuses on the value of community and small business, I think we give our vacationing customers a way to connect to that small-town vibe, and feel a part of something special. That being said, I really think that any community is a good place for an indie, and that every community deserves one. I’ve always said that I strive to create the kind of bookstore where I would want to shop, and I’d want to shop at an indie bookstore no matter where I lived. The coffee shop? It just adds to the hanging-out-with-friends feeling we always strive to achieve.
AB: Seems like there’s always a reading, signing, storytime or crafting event going on at Saturn–is there one event that stands out in your mind as the most successful or unique?
JM: Very early on in our author event scheduling, we hosted Claire Cook, whose novel (and later movie) Must Love Dogs was about a woman re-entering the dating scene after many years of married life. Her well-intentioned family puts ads in the relationship section of the paper on her behalf, and mayhem ensues. We created a whole slew of personal ads to hang from our ceiling for the reading, and then adjourned outside underneath our town Pavilion where we held a community -wide bachelor auction, selling off males in our community to do everything from washing cars in shorts only to giving golf lessons. We raised over $3,000 for our local school libraries at the auction, Claire got a great photo of her signing our local radio station DJ/auctioneer’s stomach in Sharpie in PW, and we established our author events as the place to see and be seen all in one fell swoop!
AB: How have customers responded to Saturn selling Google ebooks and how has your experience been so far, getting them to think of the store as a source of digital literature?
JM: Sadly, our reception has been luke-warm. I really think the problem is marketing and perception. It is so difficult to spread the word that ‘Kindle’ is not synonymous with ‘eReader’ and that owning a Kindle will divert all of your ebook purchases away from us and straight to Amazon. Amazon has a huge marketing budget and fighting for mind-share is such an up-hill battle. Several of the bookstores in our region have banded together to buy some print ads for the holidays beseaching customers to consider an eReader purchase that will allow them to continue to buy locally, and I really hope we get some reach from that. The message is on our website, it’s in our store, it’s in our ads, but I feel as if I’m mostly preaching to the choir. It’s all of those OTHER people we need to get to before the holiday buying frenzy takes hold!
AB: To what extent have you seen the closing of Borders impact Saturn and how do you see it affecting sales in the future?
JM: The closest Borders to us was 1 1/2 hours away, in Traverse City. It has generated a lot of talk in Gaylord–I had a guest column in our local paper about it and we offered a gift card for any Borders Rewards cards turned in to us, but I think the greater impact by far is on the stores in the TC area. That space was one of the ones immediately filled by a Books-a-Million.
AB: As a bookseller, what part of your job do you look forward to the most each day?
JM: Talking to customers about books. Hands down.
AB: If you weren’t selling books, you’d be…
JM: Reading them. Haha! I’m a dilettante–I always said I wanted to work in advertising (I did, for years), stay at home with kids (I did, until my two youngest, twins, were in second grade and our oldest in seventh, and then I opened the store), own a bookstore (that would be the ‘now’ phase), and go to law school. I always tell folks that since I often can’t remember why I’ve gone from one side of the store to the other these days, I might not flourish in law school, so they’re just stuck with me in bookstore phase for now!
AB: What books are you expecting to fly off the shelves this season?
JM: The obvious ones, Steve Jobs, Night Circus, the Jaqueline Onassis tapes, but we always have a table front and center of special staff picks of books we think you shouldn’t miss this year. It usually generates a lot of business in more obscure, or not such commercial titles. We’re still honing that list right now…
AB: While there are plenty of reasons people like to predict doom for indie bookstores, what gives you hope that indies like Saturn can not only survive but thrive?
JM: I think we fill a niche. If touching, smelling and reading a ‘real’ book have value, so do talking, laughing and listening to ‘real’ booksellers. Amazon’s kids can’t tell you about their last semester at college, Amazon’s staff doesn’t care about your pet troubles, and you can’t smell Amazon’s coffee shop from out on the sidewalk.
AB: Favorite bookstore memory to date?
JM: Every time someone tells us that we are their favorite store. No matter how rotten my day has been, or how many customers have come in with cell phones poised to scan ISBNs, being thanked for just being here has the power to make my day.