By Christine Bates | firstname.lastname@example.org
Dick, do you have a favorite section in your book stores?
Definitely the kids’ section with toys and books. It’s more fun and less work. We bought the children’s store building on South Center Street in Millerton in 1994 because our main store on Main Street was getting too crowded. Our childrens’ section accounts for about 20% of our business.
Are independent bookstores viable?
Indies are definitely making a come-back. I think people realize that when you order from Amazon your money leaves the community. A local bookstore is something real in your life – it’s positive, safe, and you interact with people. Everyone leaves our store happy. E-books were really hot, but they are now in gradual decline. Holding a book is a much better experience than reading on a screen, which a lot of us have to do all day long at work. The last 18 months have been the best ever for our two stores.
What’s the secret of running a successful bookstore? How did you learn?
Like any retail store, you have to work hard. Key is staying informed about what your customers are asking for and matching your inventory to your customer base. In a rural area like ours, there are fewer people and you really have to control your inventory.
I don’t ever look at the best seller lists. I listen to my customers.
I learned the business side by the seat of my pants. The only retail experience I had before starting Oblong was working in a food co-op in Arizona. It’s really not so complicated. You need to pay your vendors, watch your inventory and cash flow, and have access to credit lines for the slow part of the year. We started out with a very small amount of money and a cheap space.
“Those of us who read because we love it more than anything, who feel about bookstores the way some people feel about jewelers…” – Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life
How do you go about buying books? Are there any books you won’t sell?
We try to anticipate what our customers will want to read and we have over 30,000 titles in stock. We even carry right-wing political books because we cover the full spectrum of tastes and ideas. The only book that I have always refused to sell is Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard.
My daughter, Suzanna Hermans, who has worked in the store since she was eight years old, has liberated me from the job of ordering books. She checks what is sold in both stores almost every day and reorders when necessary. We order seasonally in the spring, summer, and fall. Autumn is the time of the heavy-hitters in the book business, like summer blockbusters for the movie business.
Returning books that don’t sell to publishers is also important. You can’t predict whether something will sell. About 15% of what we order is returned to the publisher for credit. Returns are time-consuming and expensive because we have to pay the freight. Books are heavy. Returns are one of the things I do now in the store.
Before the internet, book fairs (like the American Booksellers Association, the “ABA,” now called the Book Expo) were important for buying, but now they have become more industry social gatherings and provide important educational resources. The New England Independent Book Sellers Association holds annual conferences which showcase authors and regional books. I’ve been the president and treasurer, and so has my daughter.
How has the book selling business changed since you started Oblong in 1975?
The margins and logistics of brick and mortar bookstores have actually improved over the 40+ years we’ve been in business. Publishers now give bookstores 46% off the list price and pay the freight. We used to keep our inventory records on 3” by 5” file cards and it would take over two weeks to order and receive a book for a customer. Now we have a simple, but effective, computerized inventory system and can get a book in a day or two.
Oblong does a lot of special events. Is that an important part of your business?
Word-of-mouth is our most important marketing tool, but we use our website and internet newsletter to announce special events. In our Rhinebeck store we host over 100 events every year, and our White Hart series in Salisbury, CT, has really taken off. We are organizing an event at Bard College for Stephen King and his son who just wrote a book together that has already sold out. Six hundred readers bought a book to get in.
You have two stores. Are the customers different?
Both Oblong stores are about 100 miles from Manhattan which means we tap into an urban New York City demographic. Our Millerton store draws heavily from northwest Connecticut and seems to attract the same customers every weekend, while Rhinebeck tends to be younger and hipper, in part, because of Bard College. Our Rhinebeck store always seems to have different people browsing. Maybe they are tourists visiting the FDR library (there’s not a lot to do in Hyde Park), or maybe it’s the incredible restaurant scene that has developed in Rhinebeck. After ten years of thinking about it, we opened in Rhinebeck four days after 9/11 – it took us until 2013 to really get going.
“A place is not really a place without a bookstore.” – Gabrielle Zevin
Is it difficult to find employees? How many do you have?
We hire people who are discerning readers. We have eight full time employees including Suzanna and me, and ten part-time employees. Our employees are the ones, like Lisa Wright, our biggest reader, who pick out the staff favorites on the shelves. Right now we have 30 staff picks in Science Fiction alone.
What would you tell anyone thinking about starting a bookstore?
You can open a bookstore in a small town but it’s a hand-to-mouth existence for a long time. The first two summers Holly Nelson (my partner at the time) and I lived in a teepee in Milan and rode our Mopeds to Millerton.
Do a survey to figure out how many people there are in a radius of 15 to 20 miles from your location and identify your competition.
I’m never unhappy in the store and I like working for myself. The boss is always easy on you. I have a pool table outside my office and thousands of CD’s that musicians send me for my radio show. It’s chaos and different every day. You’re never exactly sure what’s going to happen, but you’ve learned how to handle anything.
What are you reading right now?
My daughter picked out The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews for me and predicts it will be a best seller in the fall. The novel takes place in New York in 1939, involves the IRA and has scenes in Dutchess County. It even mentions Pine Plains! Normally I read non-fiction and the New York Times.
“A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.” – Jerry Seinfeld
Why are you running for political office? Is that why your hair is shorter?
I’m running as a Democrat for a seat representing our area in the Dutchess County legislature because I believe that government can affect change and do things that help people. So many people are alienated from democracy and have lost faith in government. I’m willing to do a good job and work with everyone. I’m really trying to get elected and have a lot of support in Milan, where I grew up, and in Millerton.
My hair is now shoulder length – much better for the summer. I’ve always worn my hair long and saved millions in barbershop bills.
What do you do for fun?
I started doing radio in college in 1966 and have been a disk jockey ever since. For 30 years I’ve been on WKZE (98.1 FM) in Red Hook on Saturday mornings with a folk and bluegrass show. The show promotes our modest, virtually nonexistent sale of music CD’s. It helps keep music alive. Satellite radio and the internet have really been terrible for recording sales. Every Tuesday evening I do a show called Borderline on Robin Hood Radio (103.3 FM WQQQ) that is re-broadcast on Saturdays at 6pm.
What’s the Outdoor Classroom?
For four decades I have been involved in the Rail Trail and now it will be extended north from Millerton. I worked on developing a $97,000 grant to provide informational signage along the trail to give an ecological education to riders and enrich their outdoor experience. The signs will focus on the important role of wetlands in purifying water in our watershed. •
To reach Dick Hermans or to learn more about Oblong Books & Music you can visit them on Main Street in Millerton or on Montgomery Row in Rhinebeck, or visit them online at www.oblongbooks.com.