By Janna Williams
From the display windows covered in hundreds of painted flowers to their shelves upon shelves of books, the word best describing Country Bookshelf is inviting.
Once inside the invitation continued as I was greeted warmly by the staff and owner, Ariana Paliobagis. Ariana and I made our way down the book lined center aisle and ventured upstairs to the perfect interview spot, namely a comfy green couch to entice anyone wanting to kick back and read a good book. From there we started talking books and small business.
Why are independent bookstores so important?
To me, independent bookstores are not just places to purchase books, they are places to build community. In addition to their active involvement with local authors, schools, and libraries, independent bookstores also address key community issues such as literacy.
What role does Country Bookshelf play in the community?
We just celebrated our 60th anniversary last year, so Country Bookshelf has been a part of the Bozeman literary landscape for a long time.
As for our role in the Bozeman community, our store has a strong responsibility to bring the community together in order to facilitate conversation and the development of local relationships. Through our events and the items we carry, we hope to expose people to ideas and viewpoints that they might not have explored before.
How do you interact with the local author community?
Independent bookstores are well known in the literary world for being places where authors can be discovered, so we are always thrilled to support those who might not be able to get a foothold with major publishers.
To give local authors support we not only stock their books and make introductions for them to other bookstores and other authors, but we also host in-store events as a way to help introduce them to the readers in our community. This is all in addition to our consignment program, specifically created for them. This program was created to allow the community to access works from our local authors who have self-published while allowing those authors to sell their books.
Speaking of consignment… Do you have any good stories that came out of a self-publish?
I’ve been with the store for 12 years and, while self-publishing has recently become popular, we have always had some consignment from our local authors.
One of our favorite self-publishing stories comes from years back. When Stanley Gordon West self-published his book Blind Your Ponies, he sold it through the store. It was one of our bestsellers for many years and was ultimately picked up by a major publisher. His book is still one of our regional bestsellers.
What’s the most important thing(s) a good independent bookstore can provide their customers to compete with e-commerce?
I think the best thing — we strive for it every day and I hope we succeed — is our customer service. The people who work here love books, they love reading, they love talking about books, and they love helping people find just the right book to fit their particular need. You just don’t get that kind of experience online.
In addition, I would say providing customers with the serendipity of being able to freely browse titles that are not necessarily going to featured online. Because online browsing is so targeted, customers are much less likely to make a wonderful accidental discovery.
Would it be accurate to say that online book options are limiting the scope of what people are reading?
Absolutely. There are some major issues with the current systems. That limited scope is having a throttling effect on publishers, to the point where they are taking fewer risks and publishing less books that aren’t seen as certain commercial successes. This results in many amazing stories being overlooked.
As the Country Bookshelf has evolved through the years, what choices have you made to diversify?
One of the things that independent bookstores have been able to do, thanks in large part to the American Bookseller Association, is develop a robust online presence. Our website is fully e-commerce enabled so you can buy books and ebooks from us online.
Digital audiobooks are our best selling online item. Because Libro.fm has partnered with independent booksellers you can actually buy your digital audio books through us. They offer a subscription service, just like with the other guys — it may be a penny or two cheaper, but the set-up is just as easy.
When it comes to the non-book items you see around the store… we like to provide our customers with opportunities to put together a whole package. We now offer everything from writing accessories and stationery (cards from local artists sell extremely well) to the quirky comfortable socks that you need to have on when you’re reading. We even offer support items for our readers who are gardeners, cooks, and travelers, in an effort to support those lifestyles too.
Would you say Bozeman is different than most communities when it comes to local businesses?
I talk to other booksellers around the country on a regular basis — the bookselling community is really tight-knit and friendly. Since we don’t see each other as competitors, we often share stories, challenges, and ideas.
Through this, I have found that many communities in the country have not had the kind of local support that we have here in Bozeman. Many bookseller are just now trying to build that attitude in their community. It makes me feel lucky to have the community that we do in Bozeman.
What advice do you have for other independent bookstores?
I would tell them to connect with the local businesses around them. If they make that local connection part of their messaging on a regular basis, they will start to make a dent in people’s local consciousness.
What challenges have you faced as a small business?
In Bozeman specifically, I have faced challenges with maintaining staff for a interesting reason.
We have an incredible community of well-educated people (actually… I often have incredibly over-qualified people working for me) but the cost of living here is really high. Housing is a problem, and I have seen my staff couch-surf and roommate with each other in order to be here.
The low unemployment rate in Bozeman is amazing but it also makes competing for good employees really tough, so compared to other independent bookstores, and for the size of our community, we probably pay on the high end. To compete I also offer more benefits than a lot of other independents.
The higher cost is worth it. My business wouldn’t exist without my employees… these amazing people who love books… without them the Country Bookshelf is not here.
What would you say to someone who’s never purchased a book from an independent bookstore?
I would just ask them – What do you want your community to look like? What do you value?
If you value places for discovery and places to have open conversation… if you want those places to exist, you have to support them. If you want to have local businesses that support your schools and libraries, you have to support them in return.
Do you have any specific programs that you do within the community?
Every November for the last 10 years, the Library has been putting on the Children’s Festival of the Book and, for the last seven or so years, we’ve been partnering with them on that.
I love this partnership because we get to bring nationally-known authors and illustrators to Bozeman where they spend an entire day at the Library doing presentations and interacting with our community. Best of all, kids get to meet their heroes.
This has made such a big impact in so many kids’ lives. I am really proud to be a part of that.
Last question… What book should every small business owner read?
Every small business owner should read Paul Downs’ Boss Life – Surviving My Own Small Business. I consider this book to be an incredibly honest depiction of what it’s like to run your own business. It’s warts and all – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unexpected.
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