30 October 08 | Chad W. Post

In order to draw more customers to their (relatively) new downtown Grand Rapids location, Schuler Books & Music is trying to get a liquor license:

Fehsenfeld envisions adding beer and wine to his cafe’s extensive coffee menu, so bookstore patrons could have a glass with dinner, browse the books, relax by the fireplace and maybe listen to a live concert. As downtown condominiums have developed, so has downtown retail traffic, he said. Although the depressed real estate market has slowed new downtown starts for now, Fehsenfeld is positioning Schuler’s downtown location to move forward with it in the future. Western Michigan Business Review

Surprisingly, this article is a bit provincial and mostly concerned with new liquor regulations in a mid-sized city bordering the last town in American to lift its ban on MTV . . . But, the idea of adding booze to an independent bookstore is a pretty intriguing way that some stores could compete with the big box competition.

Having worked at Schuler Books & Music (this was the first bookstore I worked at), I can attest to the fact that the “experience” of being in a bookstore has always been of utmost importance to Bill and Cecile Fehsenfeld.

Granted, when I was there Schuler’s fiction section was easily one of the best in the country (I’m not exaggerating at all) and we were very good about customer service and special orders and all of the other things a great bookstore has to do well to be considered great, but, in my opinion, the thing that put Schuler over the top was the fact that it made itself into a destination.

Schuler was (and I assume still is) a place where people would come and hang out just to hang out. Or, toward the end of my time there, a place that featured regular jazz concerts (including the Vandermark 5) and other atypical book events in the performance space that they added onto the store. The location I worked at also had a decent (more than decent considering it’s in a bookstore) restaurant/cafe.

“It’s an interesting thing because it’s like a cheap date, in a way,” Fehsenfeld said of the weekly music performances. “It’s perfect for families with young kids — there’s no set schedule, you’re not committed for a block of time. I know a lot of people who, as couples, come out and just hang out for a Friday evening.”

And selling wine and beer would be a nice addition to the Schuler atmosphere. (And help people make spontaneous purchases? Man, it would be a bad idea for me to hang out tipsy in a bookstore . . .)

The idea of making a bookstore (or library) a “destination” isn’t necessarily new, and a lot of independent bookstore owners implement different ideas to accomplish just this. Expanding more in this direction seems to me to be a really smart idea for the future. Or for right now. With the economy all kinds of f-ed up, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a significant increase in the number of people just hanging out in Schuler on a Friday night . . . Like Bill says, it is cheap, it is easy, and—as is the case with a lot of indie stores—it’s a great place to meet interesting people, both in terms of the customers and the staff.

And although B&N/Borders have cafes, it’s not quite the same, and the atmosphere at those stores—despite all the puffy chairs and moderately interesting book signing—still isn’t that inviting, making the box stores the sort of place you go to buy something and get out. Or to browse by yourself for a bit and then get out. Even our local B&N’s “Community Room” is totally not conducive to creating a sense of community . . .

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