Creating community: Bookstores adapt by focusing on new ways to reach readers

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Book clubs are no longer confined to living rooms, and bookstores offer much more than just books with a whole new realm opening up for gatherings centered around reading.

When entering Hearthfire Books and Treats in Evergreen, shoppers are greeted by a bright green wall of frozen yogurt machines and a topping bar. The shop also offers coffee, smoothies and shakes.

Owner Kappy Kling believes she has created more than just a store but a space for community.

“[It’s] a little oasis for kids and adults to be able to congregate and hang out,” she said.

Kling sees many bookstores modifying their business models to attract new customers.

“Bookstores over the years, with changes, have adapted by adding different things for engagement, especially smaller ones (bookstores)," she said. "So for us, the frozen yogurt was a big one of those.”

Hearthfire attracts a big afterschool crowd from the local schools, and Kling enjoys providing a safe place for kids to hang out, have a snack and read. 

“It kind of gives these kids a little freedom,” she said. “It allows them to be themselves.”

Creating community is also a central focus at BookBar on Tennyson Street in Denver.

Nearly nine years ago, Nicole Sullivan was wishing she could have a book club meeting anywhere besides someone’s living room, and from that thought, BookBar was born.

The popular bookstore offers wine, coffee and small plates to enjoy while reading and browsing books. 

Beyond just book club meetings, Sullivan says the shop sees a lot of first dates, girls’ nights, professional meetings and remote work. 

The pandemic has had its effect on all businesses, especially food and drink service. But when the going got tough for that side of the business, books had BookBar’s back. Book sales kept the business operating until more of the nontraditional features of the shop — food and drink — could return safely. 

Sullivan says she thinks there is one secret to the continued success of bookstores.

“The future of bookstores is community bookstores,” Sullivan said.

And Sullivan is doing her part to ensure that. She not only owns BookBar but also The Bookies bookstore at 4315 E. Mississippi Ave. in Glendale. Together, the two independent bookstores have become a Public Benefit Corporation, offering the benefits of literacy, environmental sustainability, freedom of expression and diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Sullivan also has created a nonprofit called BookGive with 10% of book sales from both stores going to this organization. BookGive aims to get books into the hands of people who need them at schools, nursing homes, homeless shelters and more. The group has donated nearly 100,000 books since its inception.

Some bookstores, like Hermitage Antiquarian Bookstore in the Cherry Creek area of Denver, are sticking to a more traditional model, however.

Robert Topp has owned his book business for nearly 50 years, making it the oldest independent bookstore with one owner in the city.

His store only offers hardback books, and 20% of the inventory is considered collectible.

While he may not have changed his business model, Topp does see a changing audience in his store. He originally thought his customers would grow old with him, but instead, he has seen something different.

“Saturdays, it's almost everyone under 40,” he said.

He laughed and said one misconception about young readers is that they only read Stephen King. Topp thinks people are generally too hard on young readers. 

“Too many people take a cynical attitude toward kids with reading,” he said. “My attitude towards young people with reading has always been very optimistic.”

So optimistic in fact, he has dedicated much of his time to reading to them. Topp founded Read Me a Story, Ink after reading to children in public schools for nearly 30 years. His website features recordings of Topp reading stories aloud and over a thousand stories for others to read. He also has a podcast available on major platforms that feature him reading stories fit for the classroom, bedtime and more.

Topp says the internet has made a huge change in the way he does business. Besides his children’s site, Hermitage also enjoys a strong online bookselling business, which has only benefited the store.

When it comes to a bookstore model that works, Topp says one thing trumps all.

“I still think the most important thing is customer service,” he said.

In online reviews, customers rave about the special attention Topp gives to people, often remembering their favorite topics and emailing them when he finds something they might enjoy. 

Topp says some businesses have rotating staff, but his employees have been with him for the long haul. 

“We have a collective 150 years book experience,” he said.

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