When Morley Horder bought Eagle Harbor Book Company in 1997, he knew that someday, people might buy books over the Internet.
He thought he had a good 10 years head start; instead, it happened almost immediately, letting readers buy the books they wanted at any hour of the day or night.
And that’s when Horder realized that a real store has certain advantages that the internet cannot overcome.
“People like dealing with people,” he said. “That’s the disadvantage of the internet – you’re dealing with a machine.”
By focusing on sound business principles without losing sight of the human element, Eagle Harbor has thrived, bucking the economic trends that have sharply reduced both the numbers of independent book stores and the proportion of books those stores sell.
Horley’s success has not gone unnoticed. He was recently nominated – he does not know by whom – for the book-seller of the year award sponsored by Publisher’s Weekly, the industry’s trade magazine. He is one of 30 nominees from the nation’s approximately 3,500 independent book stores.
“It’s very flattering,” Horley said of the nomination, “but I don’t expect to win. We’re just on the edge now of doing a really good job.”
Winners will be announced in early March.
When Horder bought the store from Steve and Nancy Olsen five years ago, his first move was to reconfigure the space.
He gave up what had been the book store’s coffee shop in the rear of the building, where Willow’s is now located, and took over a space immediately to the south that was formerly occupied by the state liquor store.
“We didn’t actually gain much space,” he said, “but by making our space contiguous, we made it much more functional.”
While Horder hoped it would be a promising start to his ownership, the expansion nearly finished the store.
“It made sense, but it created problems, upsetting what had been a delicate balance,” he said.
The problem was that with additional space, too many new titles were finding their way onto the shelves – and staying there.
“We had too many books that were too old,” he said of the inventory glut. “Our profit was down.”
So Horley, who concedes that his background is more scientific than literary, turned to technology, and began closely tracking, on a weekly basis, which books were selling and which were not.
He looked at special orders to see what people were asking for that was not on the shelf. And he began looking not at the New York Times list of best-sellers, but rather at the recommendations from Book Sense, a consortium of similar independent stores.
By taking those steps and tightening up on costs, Horder has boosted sales by some 70 percent in the last four years, while raising overall inventory by 28 percent.
And just as he discovered that a brick-and-mortar store has advantages over the Internet, he also discovered that an independent, local store has certain advantages over low-cost, high-volume sellers like Costco, or the big-box chains like Barnes & Noble.
“The chains are fighting the battle of staffing,” he said.
“They have a hard time finding people with experience. Our people average over 15 years of experience, and I bring the average down a lot.”
The result of a staff of avid readers is that they recommend their own favorite books to buyers, hand-selling that produces breakout “literary” best-sellers like “Snow Falling On Cedars,” “Cold Mountain” or “The Shipping News,” all of which were “discovered” by independent stores
“The box stores and the Internet are selling a commodity,” Horley said, “while we sell knowledge and customer service.”
Another innovation that worked well was the introduction of high-quality used books, which are generally intermingled on the shelves with the new volumes.
“Some people like to be able to buy a hard-cover book at a paperback price, or to save on a paperback,” he said, “and other people just like to buy used books.”
Before buying the store and becoming a book-seller, Horley ran environmentally oriented educational sailing trips through a non-profit foundation that he and his wife established. When the book store became available, he was ready to enter the “for-profit” world – and not because of the money.
“There is more freedom and less fund-raising,” he said.
Horley says that the store and the community each give something to the other. The relative isolation of the island makes access to malls and big-box stores more difficult than it might otherwise be, which boosts his chances for success, and that “captive” population is highly literate.
In turn, the store tries to give something back.
“We are a community center and a community asset,” he said. “You need to make some profit to survive, but our mission is really community service.
“There are a lot of other places where you can work this hard and get paid a lot better.”