What We Can Learn from Bookstores

Dec. 10, 2019

We're big fans of books here at NewStart. In fact, we're pretty sure we've read all of them. Reading is fundamental, and whatnot.

But a few weeks ago when we talked about a library, and how it relates to newspapers, we didn't really mention books.

This week we're going to talk about a bookstore, and how it relates to newspapers. But, once again, we're not going to talk about books.

Oh sure, there are still books inside the Mechanicsburg (Pa.) Mystery Bookshop. They're quite mysterious, if the rumors are true. 

But in case you've been living under a rock the past decade, times have been tough for bookstores in this new digital age, especially with a little upstart website called Amazon gaining traction. The bookstores' fate is similar to that of newspapers, with digital advances wiping out legacy establishments left and right.

But the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop is still going strong nearly 30 years after it opened in this town of about 9,000, according to Kirkus, which did a fascinating write-up on it last week.  

So how does it do it? Well, it's following a path many of us in the journalism industry are asking legacy newspaper to follow, including:

  • Find a niche: Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, obviously, focuses on the mystery genre
  • Create community engagement: It hosts three book clubs per month and has welcomed in a knitters club that lost its former event space
  • Host events: It holds 12 author events per year, a speaker series and an annual mystery conference
  • Partner and collaborate: It is doing some off-site events with other local businesses and libraries

I ran across this Kirkus feature on the bookstore thanks to journalism legend Dick Belsky, who was part of the team at the New York Post that brought the world one of the greatest headlines of all time: "Headless Body in Topless Bar." 

Belsky has transitioned from newspaper and digital journalist to award-winning author (pen name R.G. Belsky). He's been to the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookstore several times, and was a guest speaker at the annual Murder Mystery Conference. Belsky is impressed with what store owner Deb Beamer has accomplished, especially considering the bookstore's location.

"It's not even in downtown Mechanicsburg," Belsky recalled. "It's on this little country road. I get lost every time I go there. The store is on a hill in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing else around it, so you're not going to get walk-in traffic."

Belsky said the first Murder Mystery Conference he attended wasn't held at the bookstore like he thought it might be, but in the cafeteria of a local elementary school.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, this is a waste of my time,'" Belsky said, thinking about first pulling up to the school. "'I'm going to an event in an elementary school? I drove five hours for this?'"

But looks were deceiving. Belsky said it turned out to be "one of the greatest conferences I've ever gone to." He said about 50 people showed up, and just about all of them bought books. And the crowd was very knowledgable about mysteries and asked great questions.

"I probably sold more books at one of those events than almost anywhere else," Belsky said.

So what makes people turn out for events like this and spend their hard-earned money? Belsky said it's because Beamer provides the personal touch that Amazon doesn't. She's extremely knowledgable about mystery books. She gives good advice and recommendations, and people listen and buy.

"When you meet her, you see how much she actually cares about it," Belsky said. "She's not just trying to sell books -- well, she is -- but she cares about the authors and readers. There are a lot of relationships that are built. That just comes from the sincerity. They trust her."

Belsky thinks there's a lot newspaper owners can learn from what Beamer is doing in this little Pennsylvania town.

"Try to figure out what it is your customers want, and do the best job you can in providing that," he said. "That seems simple, but I'm not sure all newspapers in this day and age do that. Try to figure out what the role of the paper is. What is it that is still appealing about a newspaper? What can it provide? Try to connect with the people in that way."

I thought these paragraphs in the Kirkus article by Radha Vatsal were spot on:

So I'm going to repeat something similar to what I said when we discussed the Millvale Library in Pittsburgh -- if an independent bookstore can adapt and evolve, why can't local newspapers?

Let's do this, folks.

(Side note: Belsky's books are great reads. The best part: the main characters are always journalists. So if you're looking for holiday gifts for any journalism friends, his books might be the way to go.)