'We don't use algorithms' when curating books for readers 'we use our brains' indie bookstores say

While local booksellers can’t compete with Amazon on price, they can offer unparalleled customer service with a deep knowledge of books and passion not found on the Internet. Loyal customers also know that buying books locally directly makes a difference in their communities.

A bookstore is often a destination business, thus attracting a loyal following. Among popular independently owned bookstores in Connecticut is R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “It’s been an interesting year to put it lightly,” said Liz Bartek, marketing manager. “It’s also been really amazing because we are very aware of the fact that it’s been a challenging year for many retail businesses, including bookstores. We have felt extremely fortunate that our customers have really supported us during this time.”

After closing for a few months this spring, the store still saw customers placing orders online or phoning in their orders. When the store did reopen, customers were happy that social distancing protocols were taken seriously, she said, “And if they’re not comfortable coming in, we offer virtual appointments where we are quite literally taking people on Zoom tours through the store, as well as usual methods of phone and email,” she said.

Like many other bookstores, R.J. Julia’s is well known for its author events schedule, which has gone digital, replacing in person events with virtual ones. “Customers know we are still trying to bring writers to them, to provide new and exciting ways to meet their favorite authors,” she said. “We have done a lot of pivoting over the last nine to ten months and our customers have come with us so we are really lucky.”

One town over is another longtime bookstore, which has been around for nearly 50 years, Breakwater Books in Guilford, which Richard Parent and Paul Listro bought a year ago. The store already had a strong following but to compete with the growing online market, the new owners expanded its offerings, adding science fiction, graphic novels, romance and classics sections.

Making connections with customers also sets them apart from e-commerce sites. “People crave that human interaction in a bookstore that you can’t get at Amazon. People like that they can come in and discuss books with us,” Parent said. Often, customers can become ambassadors of sorts, not only spreading the word about the bookstore but sharing leads on good books. “A woman just came in and told us about a book she bought from us and thinks that we should be promoting this book more. Customers call and if we don’t have a book, we order it for them but then we also look at the book and see if that’s something that we should be carrying.”

In its 30-some years in business, Bank Square Books in Mystic is renowned for its author events — the store normally has over 300 events a year— as well as its customer service and deep booksellers’ knowledge. “What differs us most from Amazon is we don’t use algorithms in our stores,” said owner Annie Philbrick. “We use our brains and our minds to curate our selections of titles for customers to discover, and especially during this time, we do curbside and personal delivery.”

Besides its Mystic location, it is operating a pop-up location in New London next to the Garde Arts Center for the holidays. “We have an amazing staff who are just passionate about working in a bookstore,” she said.

Established in 1948, Whitlock’s Book Barn in Bethany stands out from the pack by specializing in used rare and collectible books with audiences ranging from readers to serious collectors. Store manager Meg Turner noted they are generalists but concentrate on non-fiction. “We tend to lean toward the academic and what we like best when we buy books are academic press books,” she said.

Ridgefield’s Books on the Common is among the indie bookstores that created new programs this year, creating a weekly online series focused on storytelling for young audiences, partnering with ACT of Connecticut. The theater company supplied its actors to read picture books selected by the bookstore. “That amazing program ran for many months and only stopped because they were able to start up the theater again,” said Ellen Burns. She and her husband, Darwin Ellis, bought the bookstore in 2004 when the original owner was ready to retire. “A crazy thing to do, but we didn't want to live in a town without a bookstore!” she said. “We are very fortunate that our loyal customers feel the same way and choose to support our store.”

Staff members are die-hard readers so their book recommendations come from their heads and hearts, Burns noted. “We do all of the ordering with our customers in mind. We can’t compete on price (margins are terrible in the book business) so we make up for it with customer service and personal connection — which is even more important in the time of COVID, when people feel more isolated than they probably have in their entire lives.”

House of Books in Kent debuted its sidewalk pop-up bookstore this fall, which was well received. “It allows customers to browse new releases and staff favorites — books for the whole family — and also gift items like candles, journals, and pens, all while also enjoying the fresh air!” said general manager Benjamin Rybeck. “We’re going to keep this up as long as the weather cooperates; good thing New Englanders are tough and can stand a little chill!”

The store designed its online shop with customers in mind, organizing the virtual shelves just like the physical shelves, by sections. “The thing I always hate about shopping online is it lacks the personal touch, so we’ve tried to replicate that with our virtual bookshelves. So far, it’s been a hit!” he said.

Elm Street Books in New Canaan has staff that loves books and enjoys finding just the right book for customers. A customer review on Yelp notes, “The staff is always helpful and they have a fantastic selection.” The store has continued with offering author events, recently hosting “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney for an outdoor, drive-through “Deep End Pool Party,” which saw the author hand out his newest book with a pool skimmer.

The Hickory Stick Book Shop in Washington owner Fran Keilty said she highlights the books that they feel strongly about through social media, their website, in-store displays and through the enthusiasm of staff in their staff selections and conversation with customers. “What makes any independent bookstore so appealing is the process of discovery in seeing actual books that cannot be replicated online. The secret weapon in making all of this work is the booksellers who have worked so hard during all of this,” she said. “I know that this cannot be a ‘normal’ holiday season but with the continuing goodwill and cooperation of our customers and dedication of booksellers we will make it all work and have fun in the process.”

Andrea Valluzzo is a freelance writer.