Gloria Steinem is best known as a social and political activist, but an unrelated quote from the legendary feminist is motivating Ellen Trachtenberg as she prepares to open an independent bookstore in Narberth.
“Wherever I go, bookstores are the closest thing to a town square,” Steinem once said.
“I do envision the store as a community of readers and a community of writers,” said Trachtenberg, who’s spent nearly three decades working with books, most recently with Braintree, her book publishing and public speaking consultancy.
To be known as the Narberth Bookshop, the 1,100-square-foot site of a former pool supplies store is now under construction, with workers on a recent day installing a bamboo floor and waiting for the arrival of an electrical inspector.
Trachtenberg plans on a soft opening for the store in mid-October, with a grand opening tentatively slated for Nov. 5. She anticipates hiring four or five part-time employees.
So, how will the bookstore carve its own niche?
“No independent bookstore is going to compete with Amazon,” she said. “My goal is to reintroduce to the community a place where they experience the tactile joy of a bookstore.”
Trachtenberg has two main goals for the bookstore. Aside from creating a community gathering spot, she plans on extensively curating the book selection.
The emphasis will be on newer, more literary selections — think Joyce Carol Oates instead of Stephen King — as well as art, gardening, cooking, travel and selections by local authors.
A front table that greets visitors will feature a “smartly eclectic collection,” while a separate back room might be used for events and book group meetings.
Events featuring national and local authors are planned as well.
Independent bookstores are on the rise precisely because they offering something different, Trachtenberg said.
The American Booksellers Association saw its core membership grow to 1,775 members nationwide — a seventh consecutive year of growth, up from 1,401 in 2009. In addition, the total of individual independent book store locations increased to 2,311, versus 1,651 in 2009.
Book sales at independent book stores were up more than 10 percent in 2015, with strong first-quarter 2016 sales, the association reported.
“There’s absolutely a viable model for running a profitable independent bookstore,” said Oren Teicher, the association’s CEO. “Urban legends don’t die slowly, but the fact is indie bookselling is alive and doing well.”
Teicher attributed the resurgence to numerous factors, including the localism movement and the declining cost of technology.
“Bookstores are figuring out how to make technology their friend, not their enemy,” Teicher said. “We have access to the exact same technology the larger corporations have.”
In addition, book publishers often work closely with indie booksellers.
“Our publishing colleagues have learned that consumers discover books in bookstores,” he said, noting that libraries also are discovery sources. “The publishers have figured out that they need stores to survive.”
Trachtenberg’s business plan seems to include many of the things Teicher cited in terms of running a successful store.
That includes the location at 221 Haverford Ave. on Narberth’s main drag, surrounded by numerous other independent businesses, including a grocery store, French bakery, cheese shop, ice cream parlor, hardware stores, clothing boutiques and other eclectic offerings.
“I never considered anywhere but Narberth for this store,” said Trachtenberg, a former Narberth resident now living in Bryn Mawr (who plans to eventually move back to town).
Fitting in with her peers is part of her strategy. That’s one reason why serving coffee isn’t in her initial plans.
“I don’t want to step on the business of people who do coffee well,” she said.
That’s also why she only plans a small section of books for children — there’s a kid’s bookstore right down the street.
The linchpin of the Narberth Bookshop’s strategy will be the personal touch.
“The art of hand-selling books is important,” Trachtenberg said, noting that she wants the staff to know what regulars have read before and be able to make recommendations based upon that. “You get an algorithm from Amazon, but you don’t get the personal recommendation. That’s my goal — to become essential to the community.”
Also important to Trachtenberg is her Jewish background.
“I grew up in a family of absolutely ravenous readers,” she said, noting that while reading may not inherently be a Jewish value, it was a part of her upbringing (and yes, there will be a selection of Jewish interest books).
Trachtenberg, who is a member of Temple Sholom in Broomall, said she’s been approached about hosting a Jewish interest book group, which she hopes becomes a regular calendar event.
On top of everything else, opening the Narberth Bookshop represents a turning point in Trachtenberg’s life. She repeatedly referred to working in a New York City bookstore called Three Lives & Co. as both a professional highlight and a framework for her business model.
“I’ve always worked in books and had this on my mind before I turned 50. And I’m getting in a couple years under the wire. I didn’t want to defer anymore,” she said. “I really missed having my hands on the books. It sounds so nerdy, but it’s true.”
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