Changing With the Times

This independent Arizona bookstore's secret to 35 years of success? Stay true to your values while never standing still.
by : 

Jayne Denker

May 1, 2010
Changing With the Times

When is a bookstore more than a bookstore? When it sets out to become the heart of a community—and succeeds. Take Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., for instance. When Gayle Shanks, Bob Sommer, and Tom Broderson decided to start their own business more than 35 years ago, their intent was to create a bookstore that would be socially responsible and a place for members of the community to congregate. Ever since their grand opening on April 1, 1974, they have remained true to that ideal—so much so that now their activities read like a laundry list of community service, and they could write a book on how to turn a retail business into a vibrant part of any community.

A gathering place

Changing Hands is, then, much more than a bookstore—and not just because customers can peruse a large stock of gift items such as clothing, jewelry, toys and games, candles, and tea, in addition to the many shelves of new and used books. Changing Hands has become an entity unto itself, the participant in the community that the three owners hoped it would be when they dreamed up the concept of their ideal bookstore so many years ago.

“We are a resource, a linchpin, a gathering place, a repository of ideas,” Shanks says. “We’re the first place many of the area’s citizens come for advice, for solace—and for recommendations for what to read next. One of Tempe’s mayors called Changing Hands the living room of our community—a place where people meet, greet, and eat—and relax.”

To be a gathering place, Shanks says, it’s important to offer more than just things to buy. That’s why Changing Hands holds hundreds of events, big and small, all year long. These include presentations by authors; workshops on topics as diverse as writing, investing, reiki, and volunteering; book discussion groups; and young readers’ programs.

“We are an event-driven store, with at least one a day—sometimes two or three,” Shanks says. “We have 350 to 375 events a year.”

A small space in the store is used for groups of up to 40 people; larger groups can congregate in a bigger area created in the middle of the store by moving some bookcases out of the way. “If it’s a big event,” Shanks says, “we move to off-site venues that hold between 400 and 1,000 people.”

And Changing Hands events have drawn that many people; the store has hosted talks by the likes of Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain, Jimmy Carter, Barbara Kingsolver, Stephenie Meyer, and others.

Charity begins in the store

But it doesn’t stop with in-store events; Changing Hands gives to local organizations in need, donating books to libraries, schools, shelters, and prisons, as well as money and merchandise to charities.

“We essentially give to any and all who ask us,” Shanks says. “We give gift certificates to local organizations, usually in amounts between $15 and $40. We send checks to relief organizations and food banks. We support groups who work for literacy in the schools, the arts, for peace. And we donate baskets for raffles, staff hours for book talks, signed books, and tons of used books.”

An essential element of their original plan for the store was to support local social service agencies that aid the less fortunate, and they have stayed true to their vision. And far from taxing their resources, Shanks says, “we always feel we get back so much more than we give.”

For instance, she says, recipients of gift certificates must pick them up in the store, to encourage more new traffic, which draws more income. “The people who receive the gift certificates always seem to spend more than the face value of the gift card.”

Keeping up with the times

As the times have changed, so has Changing Hands. When the store first opened, it was in a small space of 500 sq. ft. When it was time to move to a larger space, friends of the store volunteered to do all the moving. Now Changing Hands occupies 12,600 sq. ft. of a 15,000 sq. ft. space (its third location) that it shares with a cafe, the Wildflower Bread Co. A small number of original employees has grown to around 35, including three full-time and two half-time marketing people who handle all the events. And while it may be an elder statesman in the independent bookstore longevity competition, Changing Hands is certainly not operating the same way it did three decades ago.

The store expanded not only physically but also virtually, through its Web presence (www.changinghands.com). Built by an “amazingly creative” designer who “works many more than the 25 hours we pay her for,” Shanks says, and updated by another employee who posts new content and copy written by the store’s public relations director, Brandon Stout, the site is a resource for people to look up details about the store, such as its hours, location, and scheduled events, and links to other community resources. It’s less of a selling tool, Shanks says, but online sales are not a priority.

“We do about $1,500 worth of business a month through the website,” Shanks says. “We wish that we did more, but we look at our site as a way for people to find out more about the store, learn about our philosophy, get information. This is changing, however, and we’re sure that in a year or so, we’ll want the site to do a much better job of selling our gifts and books.”

Another way Changing Hands’ customers find out about scheduled events is through the store’s e-mail. “We send a monthly calendar, a mid-month update, and a weekly newsletter, This Week at Changing Hands,” Shanks says.

The monthly e-newsletter, which has more than 12,000 subscribers, is sent out in two parts—the calendar and BookStores, which includes news, Shanks’ column, staff picks, and links to community events.

“If we have a big author coming in, we’ll send out a specific blast as well. And if we’re having a sale, want to communicate something exciting, or are promoting something happening in the community, we might send out yet another. During the holidays we send out almost a blast a day.”

However, keeping the customer’s preferences in mind, they also offer the option of signing up to receive “just the basics”—a calendar of events and coupons—that goes out to approximately 1,000 customers. The store also prints 3,000 hard copies of the calendar.

Being “virtually” social

Customers also can follow Changing Hands on Facebook and Twitter, and through the store blogs, one of which Shanks writes. While Shanks admits that she’s often too busy to update her blog more frequently than once a month, she says that she relies on her capable staff members to fill the void.

“Many of the staff write for our blogs, and Brandon is a daily contributor to Twitter and Facebook. He has a large following. We tweet about our events, store happenings, books we love, authors, industry issues—anything we think may be interesting to our customers.”

While the store’s community activities, utilization of new media, and word of mouth keep the customers coming in, traditional advertising hasn’t been completely abandoned.

“We spend about $10,000 a year with two NPR stations in our area,” Shanks says. “We have been sponsors since 1975 and have been ‘grandfathered in’ at great advertising rates. The stations often run free ads for us during programs that feature authors who are coming to our store.”

A team effort

Handling the bookstore, the events, and all the other elements that keep Changing Hands at the forefront of the community is much more than Shanks and Bob Sommer, two of the original owners, can handle. But they have a staff of exceptional employees who are deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the store, well beyond just stocking shelves. With so much dedicated talent on tap, Shanks and her fellow co-owners are confident they will leave the store in good hands when they eventually retire.

“Our current employees are smarter and work harder than any staff we have ever had, and we try to pay them as much as we can to keep them with us,” Shanks says. “Bob and I are cutting back to half time in the next year, and we are mentoring a new group of managers who we hope will run the store in the future.”

With more than 35 years of experience—as well as a deep love for the business—handed down to the new generation of employees, it’s likely that Changing Hands could be in business another 35 years … at least.


SIDEBAR: Survivor Story

According to the status quo in the current economy, a successful independent bookstore should be as rare as a Bigfoot sighting. But the good news is that yes, if managed correctly, independent bookstores can survive these days—and can even be in the black.

As Gayle Shanks—who, along with Bob Sommer and Cindy Dach, owns Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz.—says, even though their bookstore has survived 35 years, including several economic downturns, expansion and reduction, a second location that opened and closed, and the invasion of the big-box discount stores, they do not rest on their laurels and thank their personal gods that they’ve come this far. Far from it.

Instead of basking in the glow of their three and a half decades of success, the staff of Changing Hands is working harder than ever to keep loyal customers happy, bring in new customers, and try new things, all while keeping expenses down. Here are some of the innovations Changing Hands has employed:

Inspiring young readers: “We must build readers if our store is to have a future. To that end, we have numerous programs for children, including a monthly visit from the Phoenix Zoo (an animal behaviorist comes with small animals and reads a story to the children), costume characters, cooking classes, bilingual story hours, and special days like Princess Day, Ninja Day, or Superhero Day. We have a young teen book club called BIT, ‘Before It’s Trendy.’ The club members review advance reader copies for our buyer; they’ve discovered some wonderful new authors. We have a writing group for kids with authors who are visiting the store, as well as a group called Fems with Pens for girls between the ages of 12 and 16. We bring authors to the schools, but only if the school promises to buy at least 25 copies of their books for classrooms and libraries. We partner with Free Arts of Arizona, giving them ads in our newsletter in exchange for their doing the crafts portion of our children’s programs.”

Encouraging “buy local”: “We are constantly educating our customers about the importance of keeping their money in the local economy and buying from us, not Amazon or the big-box stores. I think the ‘buy local’ campaigns have been a huge asset to all local businesses. IndieBound [www.indiebound.org], the ABA program that we support, has helped immensely. We are the only remaining general indie bookstore in the Phoenix area, and we are competing with at least 24 chain stores, but we’ve managed to survive, and in some ways thrive, paying our staff members good wages and ending the past year solidly in the black. I think this has to do with not only good management and a 35-year history of supporting our community, but also a constant campaign to educate people about our philosophy of ‘local first’ and supporting those businesses that support the entities in the community that allow a civilization to endure—schools, the arts, mental health, literacy, etc.”

Cutting costs without cutting service: “We are always looking at ways to cut expenses; we have managed to cut back on our payroll without hurting our customer service. We have gone from a high of 50 employees to our current staff of 35 through attrition. We have reduced dramatically our Yellow Pages ads, which were costing us close to $10,000 a year. We now just have our name listed under ‘New and Used Books’ with our phone number, which costs only about $1,000 a year. We also are in negotiations with our landlord to reduce our monthly lease payments.”

Diversifying: “Our emphasis on events, and our mix of new, used, and remaindered books, and gifts, has served us well. The store is a ‘one-stop shopping experience’ for our customers. We have something for readers and non-readers alike. We have reasonably priced toys, and we encourage parents to use us as the place to buy gifts for birthday parties. We have a train table in the children’s area that kids absolutely love to play with while their parents shop.”

Trying everything: “We are trying to create new revenue streams so that we aren’t totally dependent on book sales for survival. We might stage events that aren’t directly related to a currently published book but involve authors we love; we might do PR for other businesses; we’re looking at possibly getting a liquor license so we can sell wine and beer by the glass; and at this moment we don’t know what else. We are creative and committed to keeping our store alive and profitable.”

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