A Small Business Fights Amazon — And Wins With Community

In the age of Amazon, online shopping, and pandemic fears, brick-and-mortar booksellers are on their way out. Or at least, that seems to be the narrative. Even before the pandemic, many major retailers and small-business owners in the book space were calling it quits, so the “brick-and-mortar bookstores are doomed” way of thinking makes sense …

Until it doesn’t.

Enter Christin Evans, a small-business owner and entrepreneur who is one of many booksellers changing the narrative — and succeeding! While other booksellers closed their doors in the mid-2010s, Christin expanded her 2 San Francisco-based shops in the shadow of Amazon. It was a remarkable feat, and we’ll tell you exactly how she did it. But first, let’s talk about how she got there.

Reinventing The Bookstore

In 2007, Christin and her husband Praveen Madan bought out a small San Francisco bookseller, The Booksmith. Christin had just quit her high-stress corporate job with a major global management consulting firm. She wanted to pursue something more fulfilling, regardless of the risk. Then in 2012, the couple bought a second bookseller in San Francisco: Kepler’s Books & Magazines. Both shops are still thriving today.

Clearly, Christin and Praveen have found success in the book-retail realm, but how? Well, it all came down to their vision of “reinventing the bookstore in the 21st century.” They took a 3-pronged approach that any small business, yours included, can replicate to get a leg up on Amazon and the other big players in your industry.

#1: Engage Your Community

First and foremost, Christin knew she needed to make a positive impact on her community. It’s a tactic a lot of small companies can use to get ahead, especially brick-and-mortar businesses. Making a constructive change is necessary if you want people to notice you. When you make waves in your community, people look up, and they look to you.

For The Booksmith and Kepler’s Books, their top priority was to become ingrained in the consciousness of their surrounding San Francisco neighborhoods. Fundamentally, that meant the couple had to do what other bookstores weren’t. 

“Our business plan has always been to do everything that big-box retailers can’t or won’t do,” Christin told Small Business Majority in 2018. “We strive to create a welcoming space for our community to come together.” 

When community is everything, you need something that brings the people to you: events. At both The Booksmith and Kepler’s Books, something is always going on in the name of community engagement.

For instance, the shops hold regular “silent readings.” Folks can come in and read while enjoying freshly made cocktails and other drinks. It’s relaxing, simple, and fun. On other nights, musicians play their experimental riffs between the shelves.

It doesn’t end there. The shops also host moms’ yoga sessions, book swaps, book clubs and discussion groups, author readings, and author meet and greets. The list goes on. Christin and her team are willing to try new things to find what works. They keep a sharp eye on which events bring people in and foster an even greater sense of community. This was a challenge during COVID-19, but the shops are back in action hosting events with safety measures in place. 

Christin and Praveen understood that connecting with their community is the first step to relationship marketing — which can win a business lifelong customer loyalty and an endless supply of referrals

#2: Prioritize Giving

As part of their community engagement strategy, Christin and Praveen also helped establish Kepler’s Literary Foundation, an organization that “enriches the community through literary and cultural programs that feature notable writers, artists, and original thinkers.” 

These programs foster creativity and learning within the community, and they cultivate excitement about reading and exploring new avenues of expression. Not only is the foundation working for a great cause, but it’s also working for Christin and Praveen — as marketing. The data shows customers love to support businesses that give back.

#3: Use Out-Of-The-Box Sales Tactics

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Christin and Praveen don’t only sell books directly to the people who will read them. To expand their demographic, they bought a subscription box service called GiftLit, which they incorporated into their bookstores. Like The Booksmith and Kepler’s Books, GiftLit was established in San Francisco and had already made a name for itself in the area.

GiftLit allows you to gift a book to someone special every month. Behind the scenes, the GiftLit team curates every book they send out — an aspect of the business they take very seriously. A team of librarians, educators, authors, and booksellers ensures each recipient will connect with and enjoy the titles they are gifted. It’s a creative bookselling tactic that’s buzzworthy and hooks in customers who aren’t even readers themselves. Brilliant.

This 3-pronged approach helped Christin and her bookstores thrive in the age of Amazon. After all, the major online retailer can deliver books to your doorstep on a whim, but they cannot offer you a mimosa between chapters or introduce you to neighbors with the same taste in literature. Small businesses like Christin’s (and yours) can do that and more. 

Ultimately, the Madans’ story proves no big-box retailer — not even Amazon — can compete with community. We’ll raise a mimosa to that.

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