Independent Business Interview Spotlight: The Book Frog’s Indiegogo

Being that I worked as a supervisor/manager in the book retail business for the final five years of a certain ineptly-run major franchise that is now two years out of business (run by clowns. Literally…) I know a thing or two about the way the retail business – especially the book business – has suffered at the hands of online shopping, specifically Amazon.com. That’s a whole different discussion though, so let’s just say that for the purposes of this article I feel it would be wrong to lay all of the blame on the online-mega retailer, even though some of their more aggressive tactics show no mercy, no sportsmanship and dare I say it no interest in maintaining common human decency. The blame does not lay solely on one pair of shoulders. In fact, I believe it’s not entirely a blame-game at all. Technology has changed our lives, our brains and our physical relationship with the world around us. We spend so much of our time submerged to varying degrees in a virtual world that mirrors exactly our physical one (Google maps anyone?) that we are increasingly capable of neglecting even our own minds and bodies. So then is it really any wonder that we have fallen into the habit of neglecting our communities as well? And I’m not just talking about the fact that it seems almost alien to say hello to the people you pass as you walk down the street or to the new neighbors in the apartment across the way. No, here I’m speaking specifically about the institutions that make up the cultural underpinning of our interactions with one another. And when I think of “cultural underpinnings” I immediately think of the bookshop as an almost archetypal facet in that greater tapestry of human culture. Books inform, inspire and entertain us. They educate and mesmerize us. And they help us learn better ways to communicate (notice the root there is the same in community – there’s a reason for that) and share our experiences with one another. This in turn helps the overall human organism grow and thrive.

Am I being overly dramatic? Maybe a skosh, however I don’t know about you but bookstores have been an aspect of every community I have ever lived in. And yet in today’s world we continually grow closer to losing them (along with a whole host of other retailer models). Whether comic shops, independent bookstores or even the chains, bookstores have helped me grow as a person, and helped me enjoy my life in ways I couldn’t without them. Nothing beats having an hour or two to kill, walking into a bookstore with a steaming hot cup of coffee in your hand and a hunger in your heart for something new, thrilling and in some cases, life-affirming.

My bookshop of choice these days is The Book Frog. Tucked in Palos Verdes Peninsula Promenade ( 550 Deep Valley Dr #273, Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274) the store is owned and operated by two wonderful former Borders general managers and staffed by likewise intensely-knowledgable staff. The Frog is a smaller store, but within those limitations they have made a haven of bookish wonderment. But these days it’s not exactly easy street trying to compete. That’s why as we approach the holiday season the store is trying something new to help offset the costs of ramping up their stock: The Book Frog has launched an Indiegogo campaign! Definitely outside the box for a retailer, but I believe it’s time for brick and mortar retailers to find ways to use the internet to their advantage, and develop a different, beneficial relationship with what otherwise is their greatest for. Intrigued by how this is going I recently sought out the opportunity to interview  one of the store’s owners -Becky – and was delighted at the conversation that followed (as I am with all of the conversations I’ve had with her). What follows is the Indiegogo video and my full interview, and you can contribute to the indiegogo fund HERE.

 

 

SCB: You guys talk in the video about using the Indiegogo funds to better stock the store for the fourth quarter. This is very in-line with the new paradigm of crowdsourcing, but not something you’d necessarily think to associate right away with supporting local business. It’s brilliant and not without precedent but a tad bold – and please understand that is in no way a criticism. It is my belief that the crowdsourcing model is a very healthy, advantageous outgrowth of the information age. Even amid the zeitgeist of the social networking explosion there is a harrowing loneliness that grows exponentially, threatening to swallow us all. Community is the name of a tv show, not a tangible influence shaping day-to-day human existence, and I think crowdsourcing is a way to combat that; to get people involved again. How did you guys come up with the idea to do an Indiegogo campaign? How did you prepare for it and most importantly how is it going?

Becky: The thing about us is that we know about books. We know about reading books, sharing books, selling books. We’re great at keeping up with what’s hot–what people are reading and interested in, whether it’s, ahem, good or not–and with what’s interesting and worthy, even titles that only one in twenty or fifty or a hundred of our customers will know about, let alone consider reading. What we didn’t know about when we started was raising money. Don’t get me wrong–we knew just how much we needed to have in hand to get the store up and running and with enough of a cushion to get us through the rough first couple of years. But after our first–our only–investor came to us, we had no idea what to do next…so we plunged ahead willy nilly. Nilly pretty much won, or at least wore us down to our last dollar.

About fourth quarter last year we realized the store wasn’t getting the kind of business it needed to continue. We still had no idea how to get investors. Then I thought about Kickstarter, which I’d heard of because of all the movies that seem to be getting funded that way lately. Research showed that Kickstarter is for creative projects–and try as I might I couldn’t twist, even in my my own mind, a retail store’s need for operating capital into something creative. And then I found Indiegogo. It seemed weird that we should ask people we know for money but then it occurred to me: that’s what you do when you’re looking for investors before embarking on a venture…we’re just doing it ass-backwards and at the grass-roots level.

SCB: Grass roots… alive and well and a wonderful technique that has funded many things that I love, from obscure punk bands to political campaigns. So now I ask, how’s it going?

Becky: Depends on how you look at it. We’re overwhelmed by the support our friends and former co-workers from Borders have given us. Truly overwhelmed. We know that lots of our friends are hurting for money just as we are, and yet they’ve still dug deep and come up with $25, $50, $100. Two Borders friends have contributed twice, one has contributed $500, and one has given us our only contribution of $1000. Some of these Borders friends are only friends on Facebook and live in far flung and exotic places like Oregon and Illinois. On the other hand, the support from the community where our store is located has not been quite as overwhelming. We’ve certainly had lots of contributions–and lots of people who’ve made it a point to come and shop in the store, which is even more important–but we’ve yet to see any really big contributions, despite our community being quite well-off.

SCB: In the video you eloquently point to the fact that Amazon has had twenty tax-free years to build their business base and induce inertial loyalty in customers. From what you guys have seen, has the fact that Amazon is now legally responsible for charging sales tax evened the field at all for brick and mortar stores, or have they become the “Kleenex” of retail?

Becky: Shawn, I think you’ve perfectly summed it up: Amazon has indeed become the “Kleenex” of retail. Intertia is there, the box is handy…uh huh.

SCB: Tell people what your “mission statement” is as a store. If that’s overstating it a bit, what I’m interested in is your philosophy on what it means to be a brick-and-mortar book retailer in the year 2013.

Becky: We haven’t actually written a mission statement yet (although I think that now that we’re two years away from the corporate life we might be ready to do so), but we do have strong feelings about what it means to be a brick and mortar bookseller in 2013. There needs to be a place where people can go to talk about, look at, browse, touch, smell, feel, be around books. I don’t care how great the Amazon algorithm is, it will not recommend the book you don’t know you want to read; we can, and that’s what a bricks and mortar bookstore can do in the internet age.

SCB: So well said. Do you feel that hardbound books are truly a thing of the past or do you think the technology will falter at some point? In the video you talk about hearing the child tell the parent they want the book itself, not a kindle version. Is that the norm or the anomaly? There is of course a lot of conjecture that the children growing up and going through school now will never know a book to miss one, but I have always had a hard time believing the conversion could ever be so absolute.

Becky:  I think–and this may be based more on my love of books as physical objects and my believe that others share that love–that we’re going to see a level being struck that includes both physical and electronic formats. Mind you, as a reader of hard sci-fi I have no doubt that someday the technology will become dominant…but I don’t think that day will come for many decades. And I’m going to do my part to stave it off during my [relatively] few brief years left on this mortal coil.

SCB: Whenever I walk into any bookstore – most especially yours – the first things that get me are the displays. I always have my pocket list of authors to look for, however a well-laid table or nicely themed endcap can not only lift my spirits but also help me strike off into new and often unexpected reading experiments. Do you find that your displays help generate sales and or even questions/interest or are people so used to shopping on a screen they don’t even pay attention (can you tell I’m a cynic when it comes to online retailers?)

Becky:  I have absolutely no doubt that book displays pique interest and generate new interests. I’ve actually seen the move of a book from one place to another–perhaps including it in a themed display as opposed to a general breadth-and-depth display–generate almost instant interest in it. That doesn’t always translate to sales, but it helps. So take that, Bezos!

SCB: From your experience, based on the cross section of people who come in and out of your store – and this is me asking you to make a generalization – do people ever go into a bookstore to find anything new anymore, or is it all reading lists and rote?

Becky: I am very happy to inform you that yes! people do come into a bookstore just to discover. Huzzah!

SCB: What is your opinion of the aggressiveness of the amazon business model?

Becky: Fuck Bezos and the horse he rode in on.

SCB: Do you have an opinion on the apparent conundrum found in the fact that technology has made us increasingly impatient with faster and faster internet, mobile apps that do everything in our pocket all the time, and yet we’d rather order something online and wait for it to be delivered the day after tomorrow?

Becky: It’s one of those ludicrous and nonsensical conundrums (conundra?) that are part and parcel of being human. So I repeat myself: Fuck Bezos…better yet, as the great George Carlin would have it, UN-fuck Bezos. Shop local. Shop indie. Shop at The Book Frog.

SCB: Okay, thank you guys so much and please keep doing what you are doing, thinking outside the box and encouraging reading in this television world!!!

As an outro Becky used this quote, which I found marvelous and telling (not to mention true!) “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” Lemony Snicket

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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