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A catchy video called The Joy of Books went viral on YouTube, raising awareness for Type Books in Toronto. ‘It says about us, ‘Hey, I’m an independent bookseller,’ co-owner Joanne Saul says. (Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail)
A catchy video called The Joy of Books went viral on YouTube, raising awareness for Type Books in Toronto. ‘It says about us, ‘Hey, I’m an independent bookseller,’ co-owner Joanne Saul says. (Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail)

GAME CHANGER

Indie bookstore writes its next chapter Add to ...

Joanne Saul co-founded Type Books on Queen Street West in Toronto for the joy of books – and The Joy of Books has made her store world famous.

The independent bookseller, perhaps the ultimate low-tech business, gained global renown after an animated video called The Joy of Books, shot in her store and posted in January of 2012, garnered 3.5 million hits on YouTube.

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“It really was a happy accident, but it had an immediate impact,” she says, recalling the two-minute stop-motion video that upended her store for nearly a week.

“A regular customer of ours came in and said he had this idea for a video. Actually, originally we said no, because it meant we had to take every book off our shelf [for some of the shots]. Then I thought about it … they spent four nights and completely undid our store and did the video.”

The response to the video has led Ms. Saul and co-owner Samara Walbohm to think differently about the independent bookselling business – but not too much.

Their challenge now is to use technology rather than be so absorbed by it that it changes their business. That means using it carefully, especially for highly traditional businesses such as bookstores, which all market analysts agree are under threat.

Ms. Saul doesn’t see it quite that way. Type Books focuses particularly on social media to build its community of customers and potential customers, who the owners identify as people who like to come into a real bookstore, look around, touch books and talk to real store clerks.

The Joy of Books video serves as a global online calling card for Type, which opened its first bookstore in 2006 and followed with a second one in Toronto’s Forest Hill Village five years ago.

“It really helped get our presence out there,” Ms. Saul says. The video, featured on the splash page of Type’s website, signals to customers what to expect if they visit or contact one of the two stores.

“It says about us, ‘Hey, I’m an independent bookseller.’”

Ms. Saul thinks it’s a great tool for building a rapport with people who love real books made of paper – still an important market but one that’s undergoing massive upheaval.

In Canada, 86 per cent of readers were still buying hard-copy books in the first half of last year, according to a report by nonprofit industry umbrella group BookNet Canada called The Canadian Book Consumer 2012: Book-Buying Behaviour in Canada January to June 2012. Nearly 20 per cent were buying electronic books and 7 per cent were buying both.

But the hard-copy market is under constant threat, as electronic books and reading devices become cheaper, easier to use and more ubiquitous across Canada and around the world. Significantly for Type, of the traditional book purchasers, in the first half of last year only 37 per cent went to independent bookstores to buy something to read.

Type is determined to buck the trends. It doesn’t sell e-books and it doesn’t have an online store, though if you go into Type Books and ask for a volume that is not there they will order it instantly and get it to you as fast as they can.

Ms. Saul says their strategy is to use technology to reach right into customers’ smartphones, tablets and screens. She wants them to have the same feeling they get from walking through the store browsing about books and talking about what they like.

To encourage this, Type recently hired a community manager, Serah-Marie McMahon, to build the booksellers’ online presence, rather than its business.

“It’s about who we are,” says Ms. McMahon, who also publishes a magazine called Worn Fashion Journal.

“It’s our taste, it’s our style, it’s our personality. It’s not just about telling people, ‘Here are 10 books you should buy.’ It’s the way we want you to feel when you get here.”

Ms. McMahon says she mostly uses the now-traditional Web tools – Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Instagram – to reach what she and Ms. Saul call the Type community.

“Instagram seems to have the most impact,” she says. For example, she will put up a photo of an interesting store window display (both stores put a lot of work into these), or something about the window designer or an interesting book cover.

“Covers and book design are important,” Ms. McMahon says. “In an age when anybody can buy an electronic book, that’s the appeal of a paper one.”

Type doesn’t deploy a lot of online analytics to figure out who it is reaching online, Ms. McMahon says: “Our reach is better gauged by the response we get.”

Ms. Saul agrees. She and Ms. Walbohm spend a lot of time visiting independent bookstores in other cities to see what they are coming up with in terms of new, but useful, technology.

For example, in New York, Ms. Saul became enthralled by an Espresso Book Machine used at Canadian-founded McNally Jackson Books in the trendy NoHo district. Espresso will print and bind a book from a software file in a matter of minutes.

Ms. Saul is intrigued because this machine would enable her to print and sell classic books that are in the public domain, which might interest her customers but would take up too much space if she had to keep them in inventory.

Since an important part of Type’s business is selling books at authors’ book launches, she also uses technology called Square that lets her accept credit card payments via purchasers’ smartphones.

“The money is transferred right away,” Ms. Saul says. “The old way was to go through all those credit card slips and it was a hassle.”

Did The Joy of Books change Type? No, she says, but “it put us on the map in a way we couldn’t have done otherwise.”

That’s what Ms. McMahon wants to capture online.

“Instead of being the place you go to pick up the book you want, we want to be where you find the book you didn’t even know you wanted.”

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