Bringing Muhammad to the Mountain: Off-Site Bookselling
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I’ve worked in bookselling—for a time, I was a bookseller and then a Community Relations Manager at Barnes & Noble—so I have learned first-hand how challenging it is to get customers into the store not only as shoppers but to attend author events. My current philosophy is that it can be better to bring the books to where the people are already congregating, rather than the reverse. Bookseller Sharon Preiss had thoughts along these lines as well, which inspired her to launch her company, Mobile Libris.
The idea first came to Preiss when she was working at Barbara’s bookstore in LaGuardia airport (that particular store is now closed). They would receive the occasional request to provide books for events elsewhere, but the logistics were challenging. After all, Preiss says, “We’re in New York. We don’t own cars here!” She did do one event, however, that left an impression, a charity event with an author as speaker to which Preiss brought the books for sale. “As a bookseller, I was enthralled by this idea of matching the audience, the book, and the author. Hearing the author talk and then seeing people lining up to buy the book, which became not only a book they were going to read but a keepsake with a signature. It was a really magical moment of books and audience and author all coming together. I thought: ‘this is great. I really like this.’”
After determining with the store owner that Barbara’s would not purse the off-site business, Preiss decided to embark on the business on her own. She started by working out of her apartment in Queens with a UPS mailbox in Manhattan to receive shipments. She’d pick up her books, go to the event, and return back to UPS that same day to package and ship the returns. Right off the bat, business was robust. “Almost immediately we had scheduled two events on the same day!” Reaching a peak in Spring 2009, where one day they had about 22events, the years that followed averaged 50-60 events per week, with number of regular, even weekly, gigs at private and Ivy League clubs.
Mobile Libris quickly grew to having its own office space and several full-time employees, and developed efficient systems and checklists for the part-time employees who covered many of the events. “We graduated to these high-end black suitcases and did pretty much everything through the subway.” Booksellers lugged the 60-70 pound suitcases around town. “We developed a lot of muscles!” boasts Preiss. Their office was strategically located near the 34th Street station, which is one of the few in Manhattan with elevators.
After seven successful years, Preiss offered the company up for sale but, when no buyers came along, she closed Mobile Libris at the end of 2012. “I loved selling books—I loved what we did,” she says, “but I wasn’t cut out to be a business person.” She hopes perhaps to return to the college-level teaching she did prior to her diversion into bookselling; Preiss has an M.F.A. from Bennington College. But she believes that her model of off-site selling is a formula that works.
“I think that off-sites like what we were doing are going to be really viable for the next while. The industry is obviously changing so much. For the next five to seven years this is going to be a big way that books are going to get sold because the customer is purchasing face time with the author.” She has also seen how highly readers value the signed copy, and “. . .this is the only way to get that.” Preiss is currently consulting with another off-site start up, hoping in some small way to keep her hand in the book selling and book moving business.