Barnes & Noble is in trouble. The national bookstore chain—632 stores across the U.S., at last count—is the last player in what used to be a crowded field. Not long ago, America’s malls and shopping centers were liberally dotted with chain booksellers like Borders, Waldenbooks and Crown, all of them defunct today. (For that matter, America used to boast thousands of bustling shopping centers, many of which—even here in Vegas—now stand mostly vacant, if not abandoned entirely.) On February 13, B&N laid off a large number of full-time employees—reportedly some 1,800 workers—amid slumping sales. Investors are urging company management to sell the company while they still can.
The reasons for B&N’s demise are several: the popularity of e-books and readers, one of which B&N itself sells (the Nook); the expansion of Walmart into book sales; and the continued dominance of Amazon.com, which began life as an online bookseller in 1994 and became a purveyor of nearly everything: electronics, clothing, food, even Oscar-nominated prestige films. Recently, the company began opening brick-and-mortar bookstores of its own; it’s up to 13 locations.
Those 13 Amazon shops are a curiosity. Even before Amazon introduced its first e-reader in 2007—the best-selling Kindle—it was assumed that the Seattle-based company would wipe out virtually all bookstores through attrition. The lumbering, zombie-like remains of Borders and Waldenbooks seemed to confirm it. But in opening physical stores, the behemoth online retailer—responsible for 44 percent of all national e-commerce sales in 2017, or about 4 percent of America’s total retail—seemed to admit that there are some things you just can’t buy online with total confidence. Books, for example.
Personally speaking, I don’t think Amazon is the devil. I have an Amazon Prime membership and use it often (though not for books, or for many other things I can buy locally). I wasn’t wild about its recent “Host our Second Headquarters” campaign—asking cities to offer up competitive piles of taxpayer subsidies to attract your private business just isn’t cool—but I’m happy the company recently built a giant (800,000-square-foot) fulfillment warehouse in North Las Vegas and that it employs more than 1,500 people locally.
But even in an era of online and big-box retail, there are things that Amazon, or even the likes of Barnes & Noble, can’t do as well as local retailers can. Here are a few key ways Las Vegas’ independently owned shops are earning your business back from online retailers.
READING YOU BETTER THAN ANY ALGORITHM CAN
"Either I’ve gotten better at identifying what people want to read, or to some extent I’ve influenced it,” says Drew Cohen, co-owner of Downtown’s Writer’s Block Book Shop. “And I don’t know which is which.”
He grins as he says this, as if to say, I’m kidding, sort of. But he does add that, at times, he’s talked customers out of some best-sellers that he knows aren’t very good (Cohen knows his stock; he’s the very definition of a voracious reader), and into lesser-known books that are simply better. Amazon might be able to recommend titles based on what you’ve read before, but its algorithms can only make educated guesses at how you’re feeling. For a shrewd, intuitive choice—one that might run counter to your previous reading—you need Drew Cohen.
“I think that that kind of transparency, and also the social joy of communicating with someone who likes the same things you do, is something you’re not going to get if you purchase a book online,” Cohen says. “I definitely have a better sense of what people in Vegas like to read, and what they’re coming back for again and again. That’s something that just takes time, and that only an independent store can do.”
If Amazon worries Cohen, he doesn’t show it. “They do cut into our bottom line, of course,” he says. “The discounts that they give on books are really hard to compete with, because often, they’re losing money on the books they sell or making up for what would otherwise be a dismal margin with lots of volume. But I think that it’s more of an issue for the big box stores.”
And the careful attention independent stores like Writer’s Block show to individual books hasn’t gone unnoticed by major publishers. Cohen cites a recent example of this, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. “Macmillan Publishing Services went out of their way to get independent bookstores copies of that book before Amazon even had them,” he says. “In situations like that, I think independent bookstores can still have the edge. When you have a big, Harry Potter-type book coming out, there’s always some kind of promo that the independent bookstores can take advantage of, whether it’s signed copies that other retailers aren’t going to get, or other kinds of promotional wrinkles that make it easier to sell the book.”
Writer’s Block’s independence and Cohen’s intuition have helped the Downtown shop, which opened in 2015, stay successful in an era when new bookshops are rare—but it’s not the spot’s only point of entry. There’s something about the place that inspires customer loyalty and city pride. The look of the place is a factor, for sure—co-owner Scott Seeley has created a warm, visually sumptuous environment that’s part museum, part speakeasy, part bird sanctuary. And the shop’s back room, a classroom/performance space called the Codex, hosts an endless chain of community events, from author readings to book clubs to school field trips.
More than any one thing (or perhaps more accurately, the sum of all these things) is the feeling of community at Writer’s Block. To be a customer here is to contribute to something good.
“When you shop here, you’re investing in your local economy in a way that you can appreciate in the moment,” Cohen says. “You’re putting your dollars into a store that pays local taxes and contributes to the entire infrastructure of your community. That’s a positive to shopping locally, no matter what the product is.”
A PICTURE OF CUSTOMER SATISFACTION
Las Vegans have shopped at B&C Camera since 1971—some 23 years before Amazon was founded and 20 years before the first mass-market digital camera was released. When B&C opened its doors, amateur photography was still a comparatively rare craft—something you saved for family vacations or special events, as opposed to something nearly every person on the planet does several times a day. That has given the crew at B&C a little time to think about customer service.
“We know we can’t compete with Amazon, but we do try,” B&C general manager Prince Beverly says. “We know that we have to be somehow different, so the No. 1 thing is our customer service.”
Having been on both sides of a retail counter, I know what that means at a basic level: acknowledge every customer who walks through the door, answer every question with a smile, don’t push someone toward something they don’t want, and so on. B&C fulfills these requirements and then some. In my experience, its staffers have gone the distance repeatedly. (If you have old cameras and lenses, you should bring them to one of B&C’s “Cash 4 Cameras” swap events. The trade-in rates are more than fair, and its prices are reasonable enough that you could walk out with an armful of new swag, like I did last November. Keep an eye out for the next one.)
To the B&C crew, a sale is an involved process with a long ramp-up and a longer tail. If you’ve ever shopped for a new camera, you know it’s not something you can buy online; you have to get hands-on with it, along with several other cameras in the same family. The same goes for lenses, lighting setups and tripods. B&C allows you to handle the merchandise, and if a walk around the store isn’t enough to satisfy your curiosity, pretty much everything for sale is also available as a rental—a “try before you buy” program.
“Customers can give us a small fee for a weekend or so. If they love the camera, or lens, or accessory that they rented, we apply that fee toward the purchase,” Beverly says. “We rent a lot, so even if you’re not interested in ‘try before you buy,’ you can just borrow stuff from us, and do a photo shoot. You’re not committed to buying if you don’t want to.”
And Beverly’s admission about Amazon doesn’t mean that the shop doesn’t endeavor to meet the online retailer’s pricing. “It’s called the MAP: Minimum Advertising [Pricing] policy,” he says. “Every major camera that we sell has a MAP policy that every authorized dealer has to follow; we have to sell it at the MAP price that the manufacturer wants. The good thing is, a lot of times, we don’t need to match [Amazon’s] price, because it’s identical. Every now and then, some companies include a free memory card, and we just say yes, we’ll do that. As long as it’s reasonable.”
(Beverly cautions that you should be wary of cameras sold online for substantially less than the MAP price. “It’s a red flag,” he says, one which might result in a cheap knockoff or a “gray market” item B&C employees won’t be allowed to handle, even to repair. Amazon itself doesn’t sell those dubious items, Beverly says, though some might conceivably slip through one of the retailer’s unaffiliated “marketplace” shops.)
What truly makes B&C worth shopping, however, is the shop’s passionate, unalloyed devotion to what it sells. “Every one of our staff members is a photographer of some kind,” Beverly says. “We actually don’t hire anyone who’s not into photography. Even our office people are great photographers.” What that means is that when you have some questions about a camera’s settings, they’ll leap to answer them—even if you did buy it on Amazon.
“Some customers are a little embarrassed to say that they didn’t buy from us, and they tell us, ‘Oh, I think that I got it from you guys.’ Our staff is trained not to take that into consideration at all. We don’t care if you bought it on Amazon or from us.”
There are many other facets to B&C’s customer service—its classes (in both still and video photography), its special events that bring in professional photographers just for “a chat and coffee,” and—hey, why not?—its substantial online marketplace, where you can scope out currently discounted items. But in the end, nothing else comes close to the salesmanship—they’re as excited to sell you something as you are to buy it. Maybe that’s why B&C sees a lot fewer window-shoppers now than it did when Amazon was still new.
“Customers would come in, test out the cameras and leave, and probably go buy online,” Beverly says. “That doesn’t happen as much as it used to, and I really think that it’s because of our customer service. People see that we’re knowledgeable, and that we really care.”
SHELVES THAT TELL A STORY
Customer service at Kappa Toys is every bit as friendly and attentive as you’ll find it at B&C and Writer’s Block. Its employees are always happy to talk to you, and they know the stock inside-out. But I’ve rarely felt the need to consult with them, because Kappa’s sharply curated toy selection pretty much sells itself. I defy you to walk into this Downtown Container Park shop (or its pop-up location at the Linq Promenade) and not walk out with something—a fidget spinner, an anime figurine, a classic Gumby. Kappa sets out a feast for the eyes, and it’s all you can do not to buy every toy in the joint.
“There’s two parts to the Kappa Toys experience,” says Lizzy Newsome, who runs Kappa with her husband, Trevor Yopp. “One is curation; I mean, if you go online and you start searching for something, it’s a rabbit hole, especially if you don’t know what you want.
“So, at a store like Kappa Toys, there’s a selection. We break the store up into themes, rather than into the same categories you’d find online. So instead of finding, like, all of the action figures in one section, the DC folks are separate from Gumby and Pokey, so you can kind of go to the category you know you need.”
The other part of the experience, Newsome says, is authenticity. That might not sound terribly important while shopping for toys, but Newsome has heard of many online buying experiences, “especially in the anime category,” in which “people are finding the seller puts up the photo of the official item, and then sends you the Chinese knockoff. And there’s very little recourse for you as a buyer. Sometimes the seller will just disappear overnight, and you just got some plastic crap.”
Newsome doesn’t worry much about competition from Amazon, nor is she intimidated by the plight of toy retailers like K-B Toys, defunct since 2009, and Toys “R” Us, whose financial woes also affected its subsidiary FAO Schwarz (the company entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy last September). Newsome, who talks about the industry with both the enthusiasm of a fan and the shrewdness of an investor, won’t repeat their mistakes—overextension, poor presentation.
When Kappa expands—and expand it will, Newsome says—it’ll be with a tight hand on what makes the store work for customers: the inviting visual feast that greets you when you walk in the door. Sections seem to flow into each other—wooden blocks into Lego, kazoos into music boxes. This is merchandising as storytelling.
“There’s a lot of stores that wish they had as much magic as Kappa Toys,” Newsome says. “I’ve always got a long list of, ‘If I had more space, I’d put this company in,’ because it’s very important to keep the store feeling neat, and for all that we’re really well-stocked, not so overwhelming. It’s definitely part of our business model to have that sort of Japanese cleanness to the store.”
But not too neat, I say. There’s something cool about a “Chocolate Factory”-like level of creative chaos.
Newsome grins at this. “Willy Wonka is definitely part of my soul.”
I’d be willing to bet that it’s in Drew Cohen and Prince Beverly, too. The thing that unites Writer’s Block, B&C Camera and Kappa Toys is that I don’t think twice about going to these places just to be there—simply to soak up their good vibes. These Vegas shops have individuality, soul. Knowing that they’re nearby is a source of hometown pride. Even with their massive web store, sprawling warehouse and global reach, Amazon could never deliver something quite so important as that.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.