Local bookstores offer superior service

books-691980_640by Tyler R. Tichelaar

For years, we’ve been told to shop locally so our money stays in Upper Michigan. But how many of us go online to buy books at Amazon, or spend money at chain bookstores—even going to Wisconsin to buy books at Barnes & Noble? Why go online when we have more than a dozen fine, independent, locally owned bookstores in Upper Michigan?
There are several local independent bookstore owners who offer advantages over super-sized and online bookstores. Many authors and customers have a preference for local independent bookstores. Not only do local bookstores keep our dollars in Upper Michigan—they contribute to our community identity.
Snowbound Books of Marquette is one of the most successful and well-known bookstores in Upper Michigan. Ray Nurmi opened Snowbound in 1984. In the beginning, Nurmi says it was difficult to establish legitimacy. If Snowbound didn’t carry a book, customers would go to “the bookstore,” meaning B. Dalton. Originally, Snowbound focused on selling quality used books, but today it carries used books, popular and genre titles, and thoughtful literary titles often underrepresented in the market. While ninety-five percent of its sales are books, it also carries a fine selection of book-related materials, including unique notecards, quality journals, bookends and book lights.
Ishpeming’s Country Village Bookstore opened in 1996 because its owners felt the need for an area bookstore. Its success resulted in a move to a larger space in 1999, and a further expansion in the spring of 2007. Its coffee shop has made it a community-gathering place, and its children’s section has made it family-friendly.
Falling Rock Café opened in May 2003 in Munising. Its owners, Jeff and Nancy Dwyer, both love books, but they knew running a bookstore in a small town would be difficult, so to add diversity, they included a café/ice cream shop, encouraged local artists to sell artwork there, and held weekend, evening and lunchtime musical events. People come just to play board games, to work on their computers, or to take classes. Nancy even leads the “Falling Rock Ramblers” a group for people who like to go on hikes. Falling Rock is clearly far more than a bookstore; it is a community center.
Copper Harbor’s Laughing Loon has been in business for a quarter of a century. Originally, Laughing Loon was a gift shop and Patchword Books was a separate bookstore, but following her husband’s death, Laurel Rooks combined the two stores. Laurel believes her success is largely due to the personal attention she and her staff give their customers and because they carry many interesting, not-so-mainstream books customers do not regularly see in “chain” bookstores.
All four bookstores have had to work to stay in business against the growth of online and supersized stores, and consequently, each store is unique.
“One way we fight back is by selling books online,” Nurmi said. “We sell used and new books through Alibris, ABE, Biblio and sometimes eBay. We ship books all over the world. The sultan of Brunei bought a book on making biscuits from us—really. I shipped a book on Al Gore’s father to the Washington Post and a book on Edward R. Murrow to NBC.”
The Internet and major online bookstores have had an impact on all bookstores, Nurmi said.
“We are holding our own, but it is a struggle,” Nurmi said. “We discount most new books to make us competitive with most book prices on the Internet. And with best sellers heavily discounted at the big box stores, most people can find the books in their local community for about the same price as buying them online. It is convenient to order online, and for those people, it is difficult to convince them that they should spend their dollars in the local community.”
Michelle Lamere, Country Village Bookstore general manager, said they sell books online, but also have focused on the community and family-friendly events.
“We have strived to make our bookstore a destination for families,” LaMere said. “We host family friendly events such as story hour with Santa and story hour with the Easter Bunny.”
Country Village also has numerous book signings throughout the year, including a large author event each summer with as many as twenty Upper Michigan authors signing their books. Country Village also has created a local book club, the Village Readers.
The Falling Rock Café also sells books online and has a coffee shop and serves lunches. It stands out because it has a core group of members, “Friends of the Falling Rock.” Each member pays $100 annually, and in exchange, receives special discounts and prices to Falling Rock events. Recent events have ranged from poetry readings and book signing, to musical events such as professional opera night, holiday concerts, art classes and a wine tasting. Annual membership has been around 100 members each year.
“The Friends membership has created an awesome sense of community among a large portion of our clientele,” Nancy said. “It had that old ‘barn raising’ feel to it. We had a large outpouring of support from people who live right in Munising and the local surrounding area. Also, about twenty percent of our members are people who live in the area part time or spend some amount of time here during the summer, or who pass through often on their way back and forth from downstate to the U.P. and back.”
Rooks also relies heavily on the tourism industry in Copper Harbor. She holds author book signings and sells autographed copies of books, but because Copper Harbor is a tourist-oriented town, many of their customers are based on demographics, not extra services.
Furthermore, the Internet has not affected Laughing Loon’s sales as much because the tourist trade keeps the store busy.
“People still like to touch and see the book and get a personal review of it from the bookstore staff,” Rooks said.
Another way Snowbound stays ahead of the game is by being a BookSense store, a group of independent bookstores that allows customers to purchase gift cards at any independent BookSense store and then use it at any other BookSense store. Snowbound also belongs to the American Booksellers Association, and the more regional Great Lakes Booksellers Association and the Midwest Booksellers Association (MBA).
“I am currently on the Advisory Board at MBA,” Nurmi said. “We regularly attend the book shows and conventions put on by these organizations. The educational programming is invaluable and has certainly made me and my employees better booksellers.”
Local authors appreciate working with independently owned bookstores. Lynn and Lon Emerick of North Country Publishing have worked with many bookstores across Upper Michigan. Lynn said because of their independent publishing status, they were drawn to independent bookstores across the Upper Peninsula and nearby regions.
“There certainly are managers of chain bookstores, such as Diane Weiland of B. Dalton in Marquette, who are extremely supportive of local authors and publishers,” Lynn said. “Yet independent bookstore owners are the sole decision-makers about what gets ordered, what gets sold and reordered and their livelihood (like ours) depends on making the right decisions.”
In most independent stores in the U.P., there is a section where regional books are attractively displayed and the independent bookstores will buy directly from local authors, Lynn said.
“The smaller stock in independent bookstores means our books may draw more attention and be recommended to those looking for local ‘color,’” she said.
Likewise, the customers, whose opinions matter the most, equally feel the benefit of local independent bookstores.
“We see a lot of tourists in the summertime, and many of them are delighted with finding our store,” Nurmi said. “A common comment is that they used to have a store like this in their town but it closed.”
Scott and Linda Thomasa are members of Falling Rock to ensure the store stays a fixture in the community.
“In summer, Munising and the Falling Rock Café are crowded with tourists but in the off season things really slow down,” Scott said. “By becoming ‘Friends,’ we collectively help support the Falling Rock during the down season. The greatest advantage to us is the Falling Rock will continue to be open during the long winter months—when a little music, a good book, a hot cup of coffee and a visit with friends are much appreciated.”
Don Snitgen is both a Falling Rock member and part of the entertainment. He plays the flute from noon to 2:00 p.m. every Wednesday. Flute music is just one of the special activities that makes the Falling Rock atmosphere special.
“Some folks stop in for a cup of coffee or lunch; others to participate in art classes,” Snitgen said. “A fabrics-art group meets there every week; there are art shows, and local artists make use of the gallery space to show their wares.”
Many committee meetings are conducted at Falling Rock, live music is performed from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. every Saturday evening by various musicians representing an eclectic array of sounds and styles in a family-friendly atmosphere of no smoke or alcohol, and, of course, people come in to shop for books.
Snitgen is a member because he wishes to continue these community services not provided elsewhere in Munising.
Obviously, bookstores do more than just sell books, but how much money from the sales of their books and other products really stays in the local economy?
A study done a few years ago showed that for every dollar spent at a chain store, only fourteen cents remains in the local community. By contrast, a dollar spent at a local store results in forty-five cents remaining in the community.
Nurmi said local shopping is vital to the success of his store and employees’ jobs.
“At this time, I have three full-time and two part-time employees,” he said. “All three full-time employees own homes in Marquette.”
He said a large part of the income generated from his store stays in the area.
“With a chain store many of the things that support the business such as printing, insurance, signage, accounting, office supplies, etc. are done in another place or shipped in from somewhere else,” Nurmi said.
LaMere said the Country Village Bookstore provides jobs for five employees, and the store buys a lot of its coffeehouse items from the area, plus they buy and sell many books written by local authors. The bookstore is part of the Country Village shopping complex that as a whole has invested in Ishpeming for twenty years. LaMere stated, “The Country Village has over 200 employees (all local), we buy from many local vendors, we support many community events and sponsor many charitable events.”
The Dwyers estimate as much as sixty percent of money spent in their store remains in the community, creating jobs for employees at Falling Rock and the Munising area in general.
“During the summer we employ at least ten full time people,” Nancy said. “In the winter we employ two full-time people and four part-time people. We also employ local people to do construction jobs, snow plowing, electrical work and printing needs. We shop locally when possible and hire local people for any job we might need.”
Laughing Loon provides its owner full-time work, and from May to October, Rooks hires two additional staff members.
“People need to realize the more they buy locally, the more local stores are able to offer a wider range of selections,” Nancy said. “People seem to think it works the other way without realizing their impact when they buy locally. It would be the same for any independent store, not just a bookstore.”
LaMere agreed.
“Shopping locally not only benefits the owner of the business, it benefits everyone in the community,” she said. “It is very important for people to patronize their local merchants to ensure job security and a good local economy.”
Rooks said most customers feel the way she does about shopping in the area.
“I always prefer to shop where I know the people running the business have a genuine interest in the customer’s satisfaction and in the goods they are offering,” she said.
“It amazes me that people are generous with donations to food banks, charity organizations, religious groups and other community organizations that do good work in the community, but begrudge spending perhaps a few extra cents at a local business,” Nurmi said. “If you really like a locally owned independent store of any type you should support it with your business. When it’s gone and you regret the loss, it will be too late to do anything about it.”
Nancy recalled the movie You’ve Got Mail, the story of an independent bookstore owned by Meg Ryan’s character put out of business by a super-sized store owned by Tom Hanks’ character. She tells him owning a bookstore isn’t just about selling books, but “helping people become whoever it was that they were going to turn out to be because when you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity the way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

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