Ed and Ann Berlin's professional lives took a fresh turn when they bought the 10-year-old Ivy Bookshop in January 2012.
She had years of experience as a book publishing executive, he had devoted much of his professional life to the technical side of finance, but neither had run a retail store.
The work has been harder than Ed Berlin first expected, but he said they've maintained 8 percent to 10 percent sales growth every year and have maintained their commitment to high literary quality.
With independent bookstores seeing a slight surge in recent years — there are about 2,000 stores in the country now, up from a low of some 1,400 in the 1990s, according to the American Booksellers Association — Ed Berlin anticipates good things to come.
What were your expectations when you took over the store, and how has that squared with the experience?
What we knew before, the nine years before we took over the Ivy Bookshop, was there was a very loyal following. There were book clubs and there were events here. So the expectation was that even though there was a new owner, that we would be able to maintain that loyalty factor. And I think we have.
So our expectation was that we were going to be able to maintain a high enough level of literary integrity to keep the serious reader engaged in the Ivy. Give them a sense of having a stake in our viability.
Our expectation was that we were going to be able to take that and go from being a neighborhood bookstore — and they don't exist anymore, everything is scaled to the point where you can't afford to have a neighborhood bookstore anymore — and somehow reach out to a readership similar to the Mount Washington, Roland Park, Ruxton, Pikesville readership, and reach more deeply into the metropolitan area through our relationship with the [Enoch Pratt Free Library], being the bookseller for the Baltimore Speaker Series, the official bookseller for the Baltimore Book Festival, things like that. And I think we've been able to do that.
We don't have any science around this, but generally speaking, we think about 50 percent of our customers now are new as of three years ago.
We built a website; there was none before. I think it's pretty good. We get a lot of hits per day. It has what book clubs are reading. It has our event calendar on it. It has a wonderful book blog. It talks about the top 10-selling books in the store per week. People can see all that. They're not obligated to buy from us, but this is great content for readers. And we built an inventory system, so that we finally have fully automated when you ring out a book, when you buy a book, that book is taken out of inventory automatically. It gives us an opportunity to replenish that, or least to decide whether we want to replenish that.
… We've also been able build a team around events, around inventory management, around the management that you need in the 21st century. Social media, Facebook, Twitter. None of that was here in advance. I think the other thing is we've built more. We've reached out to [the Johns Hopkins University], we've reached out to Stevenson, we've reached out to Loyola, to UMBC. We have relationships with most of the major museums in the city.
What have you learned in the past three years?
Almost in any business, but particularly in niche businesses — and the book business is very much a niche business — you have to decide on day one: Are we competing on price or are we competing on service? … So when we started, we looked at it and we decided there were enough customers, a critical mass of customers who were willing to pay to have access to [a knowledgeable staff]. Who wanted not just bare-bones remainder kind of inventory, but a full inventory, all the good stuff. That they were willing to pay retail for that. And I think we were right.
So what we learned is to make that decision early, to not waver. You're going to lose some people who just can't afford it. I'm all for buying as inexpensively as possible. But I think it was Taylor Swift who said, you know, people have to pay for music. Where does it say that people can just get it for free? It will stop coming to you.
Our objective is to make books as affordable as we can. Our biggest single challenge is — it's not Amazon; it's not electronics. … Our biggest challenge is to keep books affordable to the larger part of the buying public. Right now, you go to that table and you buy a hardback book — $27. I don't know about you, but I'm not buying a $27 book. I'm waiting for the paperback. So more and more of the store is paperback. The answer is not to go ebooks. We sell ebooks. We're not afraid of ebooks. The thing is to convince more and more publicists to put more books, front list, in paperback. Try to keep books under 20 bucks. … If books keep getting more and more expensive it's going to get harder and harder for bookstores, no question about it.
In fiction and nonfiction, can you offer a few book recommendations?
"All the Light We Cannot See" — Anthony Doerr. It's a gem. It's really head and shoulders above other books this year. It's a war story. The best literature is universal. It's a universal story. …
There are a whole range of great nonfiction. I'm actually reading, I don't know if I would recommend it, but I'm reading a history of Greenwich Village. [John Strausbaugh's "The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village"]. I lived in New York. I can't put it down. I'm up until 2 o'clock in the morning. "The Georgetown Set" [by Gregg Herken], about the Alsop brothers, is a beautiful book. And very accessible.