Through Chains and Change, BookPeople Remains an Iconic Austin Institution
At one point in the 1990s, there were seven Barnes & Noble bookstores, three Borders and one BookPeople in Austin. Today, there are half as many Barnes & Nobles, Borders is out of business, and BookPeople still stands.
What was founded in 1970 as a small, near-campus Eastern philosophy and politics bookstore has grown into one of the best-loved institutions in Austin, and a model independent bookstore. BookPeople manages to maintain relevance in the digital age and continues to grow its customer base thanks to a knowledgeable staff and a commitment to the community, said co-owner and CEO Steve Bercu.
BookPeople was originally known as Grok Books, named for a term in Robert Heinlein’s "Stranger in a Strange Land," and was located at 17th and San Antonio. True to the times, from 1970 into the ’80s, the store mainly sold books on philosophy, religion, politics and health. In 1985, the store went more mainstream when it moved to a new location in the Brodie Oaks neighborhood, becoming the largest bookstore in Austin at the time, and was renamed BookPeople. Bercu came into the picture in 1994, the year before the store moved to its now-iconic 6th and Lamar location.
“When we opened, not only was there no Internet, but there were no book chains in Austin,” Bercu said. “Since that time, both things have happened. Chains have come and one has gone, and the Internet has created more competition.”
BookPeople stays relevant by creating an experience the customer can’t get from a chain or the Internet, Bercu said, by hosting book signings, supporting local authors, taking an active role in the community and employing knowledgeable staff who are able to make a person-to-person recommendation.
“The staff at BookPeople is super helpful and always have great recommendations,” said shopper Jenna Henson, a financial analyst for Whole Foods. “It's amazing that it’s stayed independent for so long; I love that. It’s really an Austin institution.”
Around 2000, BookPeople began focusing strongly on the Austin community, and in 2002, Bercu and others founded the non-profit Austin Independent Business Alliance, of which he is president. BookPeople donates to silent auctions for non-profits and local groups, sponsors local 5Ks and sports events, provides books for school book fairs and libraries – “all sorts of things that keep us part of this community that we support because we live here,” Bercu said.
“Austin is extremely receptive to its local businesses, and most of the successful local businesses have been strong partners of the community,” he said. “The chains never made any meaningful effort, and of course, the Internet’s return to the community is zero.”
BookPeople gives local writers support they don’t receive anywhere else, said Julie Wernersbach, a publicist and bookseller for the store, who added that the most meaningful part of her job is being able to witness the moment when a reader connects with an author.
“Amazon doesn’t host author signings,” she joked. “We serve as a place for the community to come and meet.”
One thing Amazon does do, though, is sell e-books, which during the first quarter of 2012 surpassed adult hardcover books in sales, according to the Association of American Publishers. Although BookPeople has been selling e-books for the past year, Bercu said they compose only a small portion of the store’s sales. But that could soon change.
In November, BookPeople, through a partnership with the American Booksellers Association, will be one of about 800 independent booksellers to offer the Kobo e-reading device. Readers will be able to purchase the device in BookPeople and have the store set up as their physical store, meaning that a cut from any e-book a customer purchases on their Kobo will benefit BookPeople. Bercu said that having the device itself in the store will probably provide a bump in e-sales.
“Every market study shows that a book store needs to have the device itself, as well as the e-books,” he said. “We want to continue to be the place to buy physical books, but we also want our customers to be able to continue to shop locally.”
Even with the proliferation of e-books and the ability to support a local bookstore without even setting foot in it, the folks at BookPeople are confident that customers aren’t going anywhere.
“Going to a bookstore is a different experience than having an algorithm figure out what you like,” Bercu said. “You walk around and browse, you look at the covers, you pick things up. You can find stuff online, but you can’t look around the same way. That’s a big deal difference to a lot of people who shop in our store.”