Secret to small bookstore success is building community of readers, neighbors

Ellen Trachtenberg is the owner of Narberth Bookshop. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ellen Trachtenberg is the owner of Narberth Bookshop. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

What does it take to create a successful independent bookstore?

For Ellen Trachtenberg, running a good bookstore is a lot like enjoying a good novel. You spend a lot of time thinking about what makes your characters tick.

Trachtenberg’s characters, of course, are real people — the customers she’s attracting to her new Narberth Bookshop. This Wynnewood, Pa., native has been around books her entire life — as bookstore manager, publishing consultant, and now bookstore owner. Her creation – an independent, general-interest bookstore — might seem as rare as a Gutenberg Bible — but maybe not for long.

Narberth Bookshop is the product of Trachtenberg’s 27 years’ experience in the world of books, and she’s analyzed the industry carefully. Though it’s been a roller coaster ride, recent reports show an upturn for new independent bookstores.

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While independent bookstores have always had a loyal following, that loyalty was challenged in the early 1990s, with the arrival of giant chains like Border’s and Barnes & Noble. Trachtenberg learned that independent bookstores could still survive if they cultivated customer loyalty and had a distinct personality. That seemed to work — and then Amazon came along. The low prices, door-to-door delivery, and multiple options (new, used, Kindle) at first seemed to present insurmountable challenges.

But you can’t hold an Amazon book in your hand before you buy it, can’t get that “new book” smell, can’t have a fellow customer tell you how much she enjoyed reading it. Trachtenberg not only bet on how important all this would be — she bet that the Millennial generation would lead the way back to small businesses. So far, she’s won her bet.

Independent bookstores also keep money, jobs and tax revenue in the local economy. They celebrate the uniqueness of their communities, help to make those communities a shopping destination, and let their customers invest in entrepreneurship. Independent bookstores also offer their customers a high level of expertise — the folks who work there tend to be true bibliophiles, not just employees.

Trachtenberg’s lifelong dream to own a bookshop came true in October. She was not only waiting for the book industry’s climate to improve, but for her family to support the challenge. When her kids entered middle school and a perfect spot opened up in Narberth, she felt ready. “I loved Narberth, because of its walkability and strong sense of community,” she says.

Narberth Bookshop has a warm, inviting vibe and a book selection full of quirks and surprises. (Not to mention the Donald Trump gift soap for small hands, which sold out immediately; and greeting cards quoting the likes of Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”) It looks like the cozy yet contemporary home library of a college professor, and it smells like new books.

Trachtenberg’s ideas about the nature of a great bookshop were formed in the 1990s, while working at Three Lives & Company in New York’s Greenwich Village. That formative experience made her extremely intentional about the titles on her shelves and tables: She’s hand-selected all 9,000 books in the store. She aims for a curatorial quality. And while she cannot aim to compete with the stock levels or corporate pocketbooks of big-box stores and Amazon, she’s focused on the type of personal service and recommendations that they can’t provide.

Narberth Bookshop focuses on newer titles, though classic literature is certainly present. All books come recommended by staff or by excellent professional reviews. There are no used books, but some unique ones, such as high-end first editions, may appear someday. A $40/year membership fee provides customers with such benefits as a 20% discount on new hardcovers. And any book you don’t see can be ordered easily.

But Trachtenberg is not just in business to sell books. She wants her shop to become a neighborhood destination. Her goal is “to create a community of readers, writers and lifelong learners,” and her plan to host monthly events, such as book groups, will help achieve that goal.

Already, as customers come in, they greet neighbors, make new friends, and share ideas. Two women who’d never met formed an impromptu book club. The bookshop builds on the strong sense of community that has defined the Borough of Narberth for over a century. Well established national shopping programs, from Black Friday to Small Business Saturday, as well as Narberth’s unique Dickens Festival in December, have brought in customers from near and far.

So far, so good. When she announced her store on various Facebook forums, Narberth Bookshop had 2,000 “Likes” within 48 hours.

We read to know that we are not alone. Ellen Trachtenberg’s careful research has created another victory for independent bookstores, while nurturing minds and strengthening community spirit.

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