Crazy Wisdom

Diversity and harmony have made this Ann Arbor bookstore and tea room a wild success story for 30 years … and counting.
by : 

Jayne Denker

May 1, 2012
Crazy Wisdom

Fancy a cup of tea and a book? How about a big-ideas discussion in a traditional salon? Need a place for your fairy child to get together with other sprites over refreshments? Looking for some jewelry, yoga supplies, bath and body products? All of that—and more—is in one place: Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Warm, welcoming amber light emanating from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the two-story, 4,000 sq. ft. historic building is enough to draw shoppers in like moths to a flame. The books, jewelry, spiritual products, art, tea, and food are enough to keep them browsing for a good long time. And the many events that fill the store’s calendar are enough to keep them coming back.

Crazy Wisdom, located right on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor, has celebrated more than 20 years of success under the current ownership, 13 at the present location. And that includes surviving the recent recession. But ask Ruth Schekter, who owns the store with her husband, Bill Zirinsky, what is the secret to their success, and you’ll get a seemingly contradictory answer: They track trends, but also do whatever feels right.

“We tend to do things we’re interested in,” Schekter says, “but we also pay close attention to what our customers want—and do more of that. We note what they’re buying—and carry more of that.”

Their business practices, Schekter explains, are complementary—a word she uses often to describe various elements of the store: the talents of their staff, the different facets of the retail establishment as well as their side businesses, and the way she and Zirinsky work together.

Starting out

Before they married, Zirinsky relocated from New York City to Ann Arbor. In 1989, he and a friend purchased a tiny bookstore from a Tibetan Buddhist. A year later Schekter joined him in Ann Arbor, the friend left, and Schekter stepped in.

“We were both at transition points,” Schekter says—Zirinsky leaving a family real estate business in New York, and Schekter looking for a new job in Michigan, “but the stars aligned. We were a little wary of working together, but it turned out we were complementary. Bill took care of the book stock, I took care of the other inventory, and we managed the staff together.”

They were successful enough that, 10 years later, they purchased the building the shop is in now, renovated the hundred-year-old space, and expanded their inventory as well as their staff—up from six or eight employees to a staff that now numbers in the double digits. They added a lot of sidelines, and a tea room upstairs, and have been doing nicely ever since.

Downshift here

It would seem any establishment offering refreshments would instinctively go for coffee, especially when starting up in an urban environment during the early part of the new millennium. But Schekter says they made the right choice opting for tea instead.

“I grew up in New York City, where there were tea rooms. I always liked the idea,” Schekter says. “Tea is about slowing down instead of speeding up, which is more of what coffee is all about. Our tea room is a place to get together with friends and talk, a place to downshift. And tea is such a tradition in Eastern cultures,” she adds, a perfect complement (there’s that word again) to the store’s spiritual roots.

Crazy Wisdom fans love the shop not just for the selection of books (14,000 titles), other merchandise (jewelry, candles, cards, stones, decorative items, music, DVDs, yoga supplies, bath and body products, aromatherapy and incense, musical instruments, and artwork), tea to drink there (along with lunch, dessert, and even coffee), and tea to take home, but also for the lively culture.

Book discussions, poetry readings, salons, fairy teas for children, a “Witches’ Night Out,” music, special group meetings, and more fill Crazy Wisdom’s calendar. Some events are sponsored by the store, some by outside groups. There’s always something going on at Crazy Wisdom, it seems, and customers flock there for all of it.

“Ann Arbor is a hospitable place for a bookstore. It’s very progressive. The university attracts many forward thinkers, plus people come to us from Ohio, Toronto … anywhere within a four-hour driving radius. We’ve created a regional center,” Schekter says.

Ann Arbor boasts several other independent bookstores and another tea room but, Schekter says, there isn’t a competitive vibe among them. Crazy Wisdom has established itself as “the spiritual bookstore,” cornering the alternative spirituality market, and they’re happy to “share” their customers with the other retail establishments. “We send customers to them, and they send customers to us,” she says.

Digital revolution

The real competition, Schekter says, is online book sales. Although Crazy Wisdom’s ambience, events, “good vibe,” and social nature are what draws people to make a trip to buy a book , she says, “it’s hard to compete with Amazon, to change people’s buying habits.”

When the store added online sales to their website last fall, they also chose to offer Google e-books. The digital book offering is part of the ABA/Ingram Web-based sales platform, IndieCommerce (see sidebar on p. 32), which they chose as their online shopping cart.

“We’ve had some sales. Not tons,” Schekter says. “But we like to offer consumers another option.”

Although e-book sales afford a low profit percentage, Schekter says because it’s part of the platform, it’s not difficult or time-consuming to maintain. She hopes sales will pick up in the future, as there is a market for e-books, even though paper book sales are still healthy. At Crazy Wisdom, Schekter says, “spiritual fiction is big, along with self-help, Wicca, spiritual development, children’s books, nature, yoga, and Thich Nhat Hanh.” She feels paper books and e-books are “two different experiences that likely will coexist for a long time.”

Still, it’s the many sidelines Crazy Wisdom stocks that keep the store going. “Our sales are 45 percent books and 55 percent sidelines and food, drink, and tea supplies in the tea room,” Schekter says. “The margin on sidelines is much better than books, and they’ve really carried the book sales.”

“Leaner and meaner”

Although Schekter and Zirinsky are big fans of the “sell more of what’s selling” retail philosophy, which has served them well over the years, they are strong proponents of diversification and trying new things. It’s what got them through the recession and even now helps keep them afloat and successful. But for a while, Schekter says, they had to pare down before they could build back up.

“When the economy tanked, we took a step back and asked ourselves, ‘What is essential here? What’s wasteful? What can we cut?’ We were fortunate that we own the building outright, so we had no mortgage or rent to pay. We cut some staff—which we’ve since added back in—and bought more consciously. We became leaner and meaner, in a sense, and that worked.”

And they introduced alternate revenue streams: They rent their 1,000 sq. ft. meeting room and the tea room to outside groups on a regular basis, providing a service for the community while keeping the traffic up in the store. They charge their readers, intuitives, and healers a flat fee per month, then a small percentage of what they make beyond that amount. And they have a passive revenue stream from advertisements on their website, www.crazywisdom.net, and in their weekly e-newsletter, “This Week at Crazy Wisdom,” that goes out to 3,500 subscribers.

In addition, Zirinsky, a former assistant editor with New York Times Books, has published The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, a local periodical with a circulation of 10,000 since 1995. The Journal features approximately 30 locally focused articles per issue, and all the writers, artists, and photographers are from the area as well. Schekter is happy to report they are all paid for their services, thanks to the more than 85 advertisers who purchase space in the magazine.

“Until four or five years ago, people came to us to advertise. Then we hired a person to solicit advertisements, it took off, so now we can pay our contributors.”

Greatest asset

It helps that the owners have a valuable asset in their hip pocket that gives them the time to implement their side projects: the shop’s knowledgeable and skilled 20-member staff. Manager and book buyer Rachel Pastiva, several part-time managers, a bookkeeper, and other full- and part-time employees are entrusted with running the store. Zirinsky is also a book buyer for the store, and he and a colleague host the salons, but for the most part, the owners leave the day-to-day operation of the store to their trusted employees.

“Bill and I no longer work the floor,” Schekter says. “We’re the ‘big ideas’ people now. But our amazing staff members have a lot of experience. Our manager and assistant managers all have been with the store between six and 16 years. We have a solid relationship with all our employees, and in return they find their jobs rewarding.”

There’s certainly plenty for staff members to do, far above and beyond stocking and selling the store’s inventory. The shop’s website is extensive, requiring regular updates, and the shop has increased its presence on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The calendar is so crowded, it seems as though booking events and keeping them all organized would be a full-time job (plus employees host some of the events). And maintaining the warm, welcoming atmosphere the store is famous for means there’s a lot of work arranging the many sidelines in artful, eye-catching displays.

Nurturing longtime staff members is the most important way to keep the store running smoothly, Schekter says. Weekly meetings with the managers and other meetings with the employees of different parts of the store (books, sidelines, tea room) keep the communication flowing.

“We owners have the ultimate responsibility for keeping the store afloat, but everyone contributes. Our staff has skills that I don’t have, and I’m grateful for each one of them.”

A bright future

Schekter’s also grateful for the success the store has had so far, and she believes the future will be bright as well.

“We had a good year in 2011,” she says. “It was the best year for sales since the recession. We’re still trying to figure out why!”

Schekter acknowledges there was an uptick in sales after the Borders chain folded. “There were three Borders stores in Ann Arbor, which is small, about 150,000 people, so it was a bit much.” But she doesn’t think that was the only reason they saw an increase in traffic. Instead, she believes it was a combination of several factors.

“It seems people are tired of not spending, even here in Michigan, one of the hardest-hit states. Plus the mild winter made people more inclined to go out shopping. And we think it’s a bit of a correction in terms of book sales.”

Or perhaps it’s because Schekter, Zirinsky, and their capable staff know how to run a bookstore and tea room so well they just keep adding to their fan base.

In any case, Schekter says, and perhaps presciently, “We get the sense the upturn will continue.”


Digital Independence

Amazon and Barnes & Noble might have the best-known e-book platforms, Kindle and Nook respectively, but independent bookstores are no longer out in the cold when it comes to competing in the digital e-book market.

ABA/Ingram’s IndieCommerce platform, available to all independent bookstores, offers approximately 5 million Google e-book titles for sale online.

The cloud-based Google e-books work on any Adobe platform reader (Google’s iriver Story, DigiBooks), the Web, Androids, and Apple products (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), plus can be transferred to Nooks and Sony Readers. IndieCommerce (www.indiecommerce.com), already in use at more than 300 independent bookstores so far, is adaptable to bookstores’ existing websites and costs $175 per month.

So no excuses, indie bookstores—get digital!


Profile

Store name: Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room
Location: 114 South Main St., Ann Arbor, Mich. 48104; 734/665-2757
Owners: Bill Zirinsky and Ruth Schekter
Date opened: March 1982 under original owner; purchased January 1989
Website: www.crazywisdom.net
Hours: Sunday 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday – Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Monday – Friday tea room opens at 11:30 a.m.
Number of employees: 20 (bookstore: 13, tea room: 7)
Square footage/books, tea room: 4,000 sq. ft. (books area: 2,000 sq. ft., tea room: 1,000 sq. ft., meeting room: 1,000 sq. ft.)
Bestsellers: books, jewelry, tea
Favorite wholesalers: New Leaf, Ingram, Papaya Arts, Walter Levine Crystals, Great Lakes Sacred Essences, Monague Native Crafts, Saturn Press Cards, Ravenwood Botanicals, dzi-Tibet Collection, Original Source

Jayne Denker is an editor-at-large for Retailing Insight. 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.