Everlasting Renaissance

A 23-year success story, New Renaissance Bookshop in Portland, Ore., shares its secrets to growing and thriving as a spirit-centered business.
by : 

Jayne Denker

October 1, 2011
Everlasting Renaissance

Store name: New Renaissance Bookshop
Location: 1338 NW 23rd Ave., Portland, OR 97210; 503/224-4929
Owners: Jamey and Darlene Potter
Date opened: 1987
Website: www.newrenbooks.com
Hours: Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Number of employees: 13 full time, 6 part time
Square footage: 4,400 sq. ft. with 1,400 sq. ft. of office space
Annual gross: $1.8 million
Bestsellers: books, Zen clocks, singing bowls, body products, jewelry, crystals, statues, candles, chocolate, tea
Favorite wholesalers: New Leaf, Partners West, Ingram, DeVorss, Beyond Words, Music Design, Ark, Lotus Light, Matchless Gifts, Tibet Collection, Vance Kitira, Archipelago, Pacifica, Jewelry Factory
Inventory method: IBID POS and by hand

Consider the humble organic chocolate bar. It sits on the counter at the New Renaissance Bookshop in Portland, Ore., a familiar impulse item that’s often taken for granted. Yet owners Jamey and Darlene Potter are quick to point it out as a top seller. “The chocolate we sell isn’t priced over $4, but it amounts to quite a lot [in sales],” Jamey says.

It just goes to show: At New Renaissance, no detail is ever overlooked, no small item taken for granted. Just like the sales of organic chocolate, the Potters are aware that if the smallest things are nurtured, they grow—and end up playing a pivotal part in the shop’s success. For instance, that unassuming chocolate bar has become so popular, Jamey says, “we had to buy two refrigerators to store our stock.”

Expanding the Renaissance

The Potters evidently are doing something right; New Renaissance has enjoyed exceptional success for more than two decades. Jamey and Darlene were both inspired to open a bookstore, but separately. Darlene was envisioning a feminist bookshop, but when Jamey suggested a metaphysical store, she felt that idea was correct and said yes immediately. She saw it as their mission—something beneficial for the city of Portland.

New Renaissance opened in 1987 in a Victorian row house in the city’s northwest district, with a stock of books, music, videos, children’s items, crystals, jewelry, statuary, and other gifts.

And while their vision has remained constant, one thing has changed greatly: the store’s footprint. Over the years they expanded by “marching south,” as Jamey puts it, annexing the house next door, then the house next to that one. A fourth house, the store’s event center, is a short walk down the street.

Now New Renaissance consists of 4,400 square feet of retail space, including a children’s area, two incense rooms (one with a Native American theme, the other with an Eastern theme), a meditation room, a tea room, and, the most recent addition, a home décor area. It’s on one of the top floors to take advantage of the skylight to create an outdoor patio feel that shows off statuary and fountains, lamps with Vietnamese silk shades, ikebana vases—“anything unique” for the home, Darlene says.

“We love our customers, so why not provide one-stop shopping for conscious consumers? We want people to know they can find anything that will express their spirit.”

Books and so much more

New Renaissance offers more than 16,000 book and audio book titles, 3,000 DVD titles, and 2,000 music CD titles, as well as a rental service for instructional videos and popular movies.

“Studying a spiritual path by DVD is the next best thing to seeing the spiritual teacher in person, but often customers want to see if they’re attuned to that teacher before they commit to buying the DVD,” Jamey says. “So we let people see what’s in the DVDs first. If they see the video of The Secret, they’ll want to buy it.”

Thirty percent of New Renaissance’s sales are from books, with gift, music, and DVD sales, along with event fees, making up the rest. And while book sales were higher in the past, the shop hasn’t lost any momentum: Income from events is taking up the slack.

The shop’s event calendar is truly staggering, with dozens of workshops and classes offered monthly, and readings offered in the store every day. Workshops cover a wide array of topics that often range far beyond the usual New Age subjects. For every successful “How to Be a Psychic” class or video conference with Ram Dass, there’s also a workshop, led by a published author, on how to find an agent or how to self-publish. Instructors split the fee (usually between $10 and $35 per person) 50/50 with the store.

Although some events are free, “it’s better to charge for a class,” Jamey says. “That draws people who are seriously interested in the topic and who will pay attention.”

Audience size varies; attendance can average 15 attendees for a Saturday event, 10 to 30 for a weekday evening event.

A full calendar

Their calendar is so full, Jamey says, that hopeful presenters must submit formal proposals. “We run on a two-month cycle,” he says, “and we get 20 to 30 proposals every cycle. The store’s event committee reviews them and selects the most promising topics.”

That means “meaty content,” Darlene says. “We work with the presenters to hone their topic and help them plan the program.”

Jamey adds, “A subject like ‘An Introduction to Spirituality’ is too vague, but if you hold a workshop on a specific subject, with a practical component like creating a soul collage to manifest abundance, that does well.”

Other popular classes include those with animal-based topics (dealing with the loss of a pet, animal communication, pet psychics) and Harry Potter-themed workshops for children, with hands-on activities like making a magic bag. Popular events are repeated on a regular basis—every two-month cycle, every six months, or once a year. “We like the mix of new and repeats,” Jamey says.

The descriptions of all the classes are available online at the store’s website, www.newrenbooks.com, and online registration is encouraged.

Social media saves trees

The Potters leave the website design and upkeep to their webmaster, Sage Waitts, with whom they’ve been working for more than 10 years. “It’s great to find someone who resonates with what you’re doing and knows your store,” Darlene says. “That manifests in the look and feel of the site.”

The website, an e-newsletter sent to 5,000 subscribers, and a presence on Facebook all keep the store’s customers apprised of events, news, and sales. The Potters once communicated with their clientele via a labor-intensive, resource-gobbling 48-page paper catalog mailed to about 19,000 addresses. The Potters dropped the catalog in 2008 in favor of three pages in New Connection, a free local, spirituality-focused publication with a circulation of 45,000.

“We were afraid that attendance at our events would drop off when we discontinued our printed catalog,” says Jamey, “but attendance actually increased. Now we’re holding print ads in favor of digital ads and social media.”

Creating goodwill in hard times

Flexibility in all things has served New Renaissance well; it’s one of the secrets to their continued success, Darlene says. “You have to be willing to change.” That can include dropping non-performing lines, altering the layout of the store to get rid of stagnant areas where items are not selling (Darlene can’t say enough good things about working with feng shui consultant Linda Cahan and their on-staff feng shui expert Gigi Estabrook), and ensuring the cost of products and workshops are affordable.

“You have to create value for the customer,” Jamey says. “Be conscious about pricing. Make sure your programs are giving the people their money’s worth.”

“We’ve backed off of carrying any jewelry over $100,” Darlene says, “and local artists’ work is priced between $20 and $75.”

When faced with a tough economy, the Potters advise, don’t pull up the drawbridge; instead, give more: a free cup of tea while customers shop, a free labyrinth walk, a free crystal for each child who visits the store. “The more free things you offer,” Jamey says, “the more goodwill you create.”

Because the Potters have been in business 23 years, plenty of people have asked them about their secret for longevity, and they’re happy to share their hard-earned advice. It all goes back to leaving no small detail unexamined and valuing the customer.

At New Renaissance, they price items reasonably, hold monthly “20 percent off” sales of non-book items, and offer unique products from more than 300 different vendors, including the Jewelry Factory, Vance Kitira, Archipelago, Lotus Light, Tibet Collection, and Matchless Gifts, as well as a number of local artisans.

Super staff

All those tactics matter, they say, but what matters even more is the most important resource every shopowner should nurture: staff members. “The hiring process is most important,” Jamey says. “We make sure we hire people who love the spiritual path and sharing that with others. We make sure each employee is a ‘people person,’ efficient, and organized.”

After extensive training, the staff members are given a great deal of responsibility according to their interests. The Potters devote plenty of time to nurturing their employees’ talents and making sure they feel valued on the job (see sidebar on p. 56). Everyone works the sales floor and front desk, and each employee has a specific area that he or she takes care of.

“There’s a wealth of knowledge and creativity in our staff members,” Darlene says. At the moment, they have 10 buyers, an events coordinator, marketing person, and accountant among their 13 full-time and six part-time employees.

And sometimes customers become employees. “When you’re around for 23 years, you get customers for life. We make sure kids know they’re welcome. Then young people in their teens or twenties come in and say, ‘My mom brought me here [when I was a child].’ Now they shop here themselves, and some of them get jobs here.”

It’s all about building community, Jamey adds. Metaphysical stores have been around for decades, but now, he says, they “must morph into metaphysical centers, conscious living centers. It’s about creating service—sharing our knowledge to help people improve their lives.”

Again, Darlene says, it starts with the small things—those minor details that are so important. “When children get to choose a crystal at the end of their visit to the store, we talk to them, send them energy. And then a small child says, ‘I love this store for my whole life.’”

New Ren’s Greatest Asset: The Staff

Ask Jamey and Darlene Potter about their shop’s success, and well before they bring up business tactics, healthy finances, or even luck, they sing the praises of their staff members. The Potters support and encourage their employees’ dedication to the store with a variety of special team-building, energy-boosting traditions:

  • The position “Manager of the Day,” which rotates among the six managers
  • Morning circle with prayers, chanting, and the “Song of St. Francis”; leadership rotates among the staff
  • Blessing the store every morning and opening the windows to clear the air
  • Weekly staff meditation for an hour on Wednesday mornings (optional); leadership rotates among the staff; healing prayers offered to friends and customers who have requested them
  • Weekly staff meeting with new product introductions, games, potluck meals, birthday celebrations by astrological sign, theme parties for the holidays, mini-readings, contests, work with the angel board, sending energy to others, OM chanting, and praise for work well done

Jayne Denker is an editor-at-large for New Age Retailer. She lives in a small village in western New York with her husband and son. Visit her at www.dragon-droppings.com or her blog, http://dragondroppings.wordpress.com.