Carpe Librum Booksellers Emphasizes Face-to-Face

The Knoxville book store finds that face-to-face service trumps floor space

The cover story in the current issue of Publisher's Weekly is about the low morale and general despair and dissatisfaction among those in the book trade. Carpe Librum Booksellers, tucked just off Kingston Pike in Bearden, seems not to subscribe.

As Flossie McNabb briefs a reporter on the shop's lineage and self-styled business model, two other owner/employees are cavorting at volume with customers in the large, living room-like reading area at the front of the store. The shelves are bright and full and lit mostly by sun. An unseen radio pipes in festive music from WUOT's Afternoon Concert. Face-out volumes in the art, children's, and regional sections entice either by their familiarity or their exoticness. Bookselling seems enviable labor here on this day.

Although it's not quite five years old, Carpe Librum has the air of an institution. Part of that comes from selling the Brontes and Wilma Dykeman and P.D. Eastman. And part of that comes from a collective expertise that predates the business. McNabb and co-owner Shiela Wood-Navarro both worked at Knoxville's beloved Davis-Kidd bookstore, at Kingston Pike and North Peters Road, before it was purchased and closed in 2000.

"When Joseph-Beth closed our store here, they wanted to build a big box store, and couldn't find the right place," McNabb says. "So they just pulled out. At that time, Borders and Barnes and Noble both were thriving. But as years passed, we just heard all the time, ‘We need an independent, we need an independent.' That fueled me to try to get other people to go in with me."

McNabb's original partner, Jeannette Brown, has since moved on. But Wood-Navarro, Martha Arnett, and Claire Poole have stepped up to share ownership and staffing.

The challenges to a small bricks-and-mortar bookstore are well-known: In addition to loss leaders up and down Kingston Pike, there are online bookstores and even electronic, paperless books fighting for the reduced reading dollars of every household. It's not necessarily obvious when you're scrambling to get a particular book in a hurry, but one reason books cost less online is because there are fewer humans involved in the process. In both sales and stocking processes, McNabb et al attempt to use that difference to their advantage.

"The Internet is our biggest competitor," McNabb admits. "We try to remind people that they're not paying shipping here. People call and I'll say, ‘I'll bring it to you if that's the problem.' We have a Constant Reader program. You sign up, just your name. The computer keeps track of everything. When you spend over $200, bingo, you get $10 store credit. People love it. That's expensive for us to do, but I think it's been worth every penny."

When stocking their shelves, corporate franchises rely on documented sales and to some extent the same algorithms that Amazon uses to make its recommendations when you log on. Managers have some discretion. But it's still a crapshoot. People might buy the book and they might not. McNabb says that Carpe Librum is often compared to TV's Cheers pub, a place where everyone knows your name. Not only do they know your name, they also know what you like to read, which removes a lot of the expensive guesswork from owning a small independent bookstore during a recession.

"Mainly, we reduced our inventory a little bit," says McNabb of recent necessary but largely invisible adjustments. "Some sections that we don't really sell a lot of but you still have to have—art, architecture, craft—we just kind of squeezed them in just a little bit. Our big sections are fiction, regional, and children's. Those are what we're selling more of. We took more chances before the downturn of the economy. We pick every book we have in the store—from catalogs, from word of mouth. We don't take as many chances. If it's a book that we don't know or a book that likely will not sell, we don't bring it in."

McNabb says that June sales were actually up over May's, a good and welcome sign.

Perhaps the most important alliance Carpe Librum has made in Knoxville is with its local authors. With in-store events and promotions, the store has built a reputation as a champion of local letters. McNabb says that during the recession they'll receive as many as three calls a day from local writers looking for shelf space. Children's artist/author Lisa Horstman and adventure guidebook writer Elle Colquitt both say that Carpe Librum outsells all other venues stocking their titles.

Horstman's new book, Squawking Matilda, is published by a national imprint. But at press time, Borders and Books-a-Million in Knoxville have no copies in stock. Barnes and Noble is also out, but has three copies on order—this on the Monday following an extremely well attended Saturday reading and signing by the author at Carpe Librum.

"One thing we've discovered is that children's is huge," says McNabb. "Children aren't going to get a picture book on a Kindle."