Think Globally and Shop Locally!
Several studies have shown that when you buy from an independent, locally owned business, rather than a nationally owned business, significantly more of your money is used to make purchases from other local businesses, service providers, and farms — further strengthening the economic base of the whole community. One-of-a-kind businesses like Ben Franklin are an integral part of the distinctive character of our town and add to the uniqueness of our community.
Here's article from CommonWealthMagazine.org about bookstores doing the same thing in the Boston area.
CBS This Morning covered the topic last year, saying indie bookstores "are booming again."
And one more article about indie bookstores in Detroit.
Indie Groundbreaking Bookseller
MindFair Books of Oberlin, Ohio
Redefining Brick and Mortar
In the quaint college town of Oberlin, Ohio, nestled in the historic Carpenter Block at the intersection of Main and College Streets, is a one-of-a-kind store: Ben Franklin. One may assume that this is just another in the five-and-dime chain, but do not be deceived. The real proof in the pudding is not the aesthetic window display, but stepping inside—beyond the brick and mortar—to a place that provides customers with a down-to-earth, hometown experience.
Amid Ben Franklin’s array of standard, organic, and fair-trade items that cater to the community and college is a marvelous gem: “a new and used trade book store” called MindFair Books. New books line the path that leads to an area sectioned off for the quaint bibliophilic shop. The anachronistic high ceiling provides a pleasant reminder of Oberlin’s mercantile roots as well as a roomy atmosphere to the narrow room lined with rows of books; the shelves adequately filled with a broad selection of visibly-marked genres. Comfy, cozy chairs dot the area. Front and center to MindFair Books sits a glass-encased cashier’s counter; its space occupied with an assortment of books that are collector’s items.
Across the counter and in the middle of Ben Franklin is a gazebo—a welcoming place fitted with a few chairs and a piano earmarked specifically for musical events, poetry readings, book signings, a knitting group, and, of course, readers who are looking for a snug spot to peruse their newest literary find.
Established in 2000, MindFair Books is the brainchild of owner and longtime Oberlin resident, Krista Long. To get a better picture of what the bookstore has to offer, I’ve interviewed Krista and MindFair Books’ manager, Tree Riley.
Anita Lock (AL): Krista, I'll start with you. What was the draw that pushed you to create a book store?
Krista Long (KL): I have worked as a bookseller pretty much my whole life. I worked at the Oberlin Co-op Bookstore (where the College Bookstore, run by Barnes & Noble, now stands, which is at the end of Carpenter Block on College Street). I worked for a bookseller in Cleveland, and then came back to Oberlin and worked for NACSCORP (National Association of College Stores). Tree and I were both working there. NACSCORP downsized in 1999 and I was out of a job. I thought of different things that I might do—go to work for publishers or go to work on the road as an independent rep. I looked at a couple different things that way. Finally, I decided that I didn’t want to leave Oberlin. I had two little kids at the time, so what was I going to do? We [Krista and Tree] knew that there were changes coming with the sale of the Co-op Bookstore. It seemed like it was a good time to start another bookstore in Oberlin, so that’s what I did. I hadn’t done anything with used books, so it seemed like “well, let’s give that a try.” Initially, I opened MindFair Books down where Lupitas (a Mexican restaurant on Main St.) is now, and pretty soon had an opportunity to buy the Ben Franklin store. It seemed like it would make a good marriage. I put out a call for books, and people started bringing them—Oberlinians who were in the process of moving to Kendal (Oberlin’s retirement community), and others. Before long the shelves began to fill up.
AL: How did you get the word out?
KL: There had already been a couple used bookstores in town, the last being Miranda’s, located where Ginko Gallery (a local shop on Main St.) is now. I tried to buy that store, but wasn’t able to reach a deal with her. And then she closed and left town. A hunger for used books had already developed, so it was all new and exciting by the time MindFair Books started.
AL: MindFair has a special focus "on literature and poetry, the social sciences, and arts and crafts." What process did you use to create this genre emphasis?
Tree Riley (TR): That’s actually pretty broad in terms of the number of titles that we stock; that represents a good portion. I think a lot of it has to do with the nature of the community. Arts is at Oberlin College; there are a lot of people who are into that type of thing. We do also have a decent science section, health and wellness… We have a large selection on a number of different things. (“Religion,” Krista adds.) One of the things that Krista did when she found out that the Book Co-op was closing and in preparation for opening a used bookstore, was identifying select new titles—programs with NACSCORP. So, just as there were new books in the mix of used ones, she continued that with MindFair.
KL: We have a good selection of releases and new books up front, but the bulk of the shelves are used and/or remainders. But as Tree said, it (the collection) is reflective of the community bringing their books to us. Of course, Tree does the buying and has those categories that sell the best in mind.
TR: But, still, with all the electronic versions of books these days, our best-selling category is backlist fiction. We sell Jane Austin. We sell a lot of James Fenimore Cooper and William Faulkner, for examples. People still like to have an inexpensive paperback in their hands.
AL: You offer 10 to 25 percent discount off publisher's list prices for new books, which is quite a nice perk. How does this rate competitively in the bookselling industry?
KL: We feel that it’s competitive. Of course, the industry has changed immensely since 2001 when I bought Ben Franklin and did a better job selling books. “Twenty-five percent off” was set as a way of matching what other bookstores were doing (like Barnes & Noble and Borders) for new releases. The larger independents were doing 25% off, but that’s probably edged up now mainly out of competition from the Internet. We can’t match those prices and still stock the books. It’s competitive on new releases in particular. There are people who feel the value of a brick-and-mortar store and want to keep it alive, especially more seasoned book buyers—people who haven’t been raised on the Internet.
TR: What I hear from a lot of people is that they realize they can find a book cheaper anywhere—and that’s true of a lot of places. But people have told me that they appreciate having a little discount; it makes them feel better about supporting the community.
AL: You’ve connected with Shelf Awareness. Is this a way for customers to learn of new fiction and nonfiction arrivals online?
KL: We had been creating our own weekly or bi-weekly email of new books that had arrived as a way of boosting the awareness that we were selling new books. It was very time consuming. We lost the person who had been doing it. This seemed like a good way because Shelf Awareness offers the branding to bookstores who want to use that newsletter, which has a lot of interesting content. We don’t have to pay for it. It allows us to send a weekly email concerning new books. We may not have every single book listed in there, but we do make an effort to, and we have most of the major books anyway. It was a great solution to our need to reach out to the book-loving community and also cut our expenses in creating that content. What’s nice is that they have a couple different editions. They have one that is for book professionals that has a little more industry information, which is also very informative.
AL: What steps has MindFair taken to beat the competition of online services—Amazon being the largest, especially since more and more book stores are closing their doors?
TR: I don’t think we see ourselves as beating anybody’s competition. It’s impossible. Actually, in the last eighteen months the number of independent bookstores closing is decreasing. A lot of new stores are opening.
KL: This is what brick-and-mortar stores have to do today. It’s almost as if we have to be an entertainment destination in some way, because we’re are not going to beat them in price—Amazon and Jeff Bezos are committed to putting everybody else out of business. Price isn’t everything and many consumers understand that. So, the way you compete with it is to offer something that they can’t, like personal relationships. It’s being able to walk in and ask Tree, “Hey, this book, I heard it on NPR, but I can’t remember the title…” and Tree responds with, “Yeah, I’ve got it right over here.” To be able to have that personal relationship and on a first-name basis is what makes us unique.
TR: Another thing that we haven’t mentioned before is that the City of Oberlin seems to be positioning itself as a destination. As a result, I find that we get incredible sales from people from out-of-town who don’t have bookstores in their communities anymore. There are a lot of people coming through here saying that they can’t find certain books anymore. You know, someone racks up bag full of books worth $150, and they live in Dayton or South Bend, Indiana. It’s kind of nice to see people do that.
KL: I just recently learned that there are thirteen used bookshops in Northeast Ohio. And all of these stores have their own unique personality within their communities.
AL: Are you saying that there is an uptick in bookstores?
TR: In new books, not necessarily in this area, but nationwide.
AL: What future do you see for Indie book stores?
KL: I wouldn’t say that it’s going to get bigger, better, and grow into anything that it once was. I think what you’re seeing is a rebound. A lot of stores did close in the early 2000s, given the competition from the Internet, and given the competition from expanding corporate stores, like Barnes & Noble and Borders. But I do think for a long time still there’ll be a role that brick-and-mortar stores will play—independence, in particular. There are now tools available to retailers, that didn’t used to be, making it easier to be more efficient in business operations, to be more efficient to get books uploaded and online. As the tools that are being developed in other sectors trickle down and become available to the independent sector—whether it’s bookselling, or department stores, health and beauty shops, or restaurants, or whatever, those efficiencies make it easier for us to survive. In fifty years, I have no idea how many brick-and-mortar stores will be around—even in 2025. I still think people see this kind of a store as an entertainment destination, if you love reading and learning.
TR: We are not just in competition with online booksellers. It’s with every other form of entertainment. How many people are going to buy a book versus buying a new Game Boy?
KL: Or downloading more from Netflix.
TR: Or iTunes. The money isn’t going to get bigger and bigger. So, the share of the pie has to be determined by how you make people feel about what you’re doing.
KL: I do think that there is going to be a bit of a pushback. I mean, I even see that with younger customers, like college students. They’re really comfortable with putting in that Amazon cart and ordering whatever they need—even their favorite toilet paper that they love that we’re out of. They have no trouble doing that. I think that they are beginning to see the value of a relationship. They can come in and the ask a question and get the answer right from the top of our heads about how to solve a problem or how to find that book that they’re trying to remember. It’s the relationship marketing and entertainment destination that are going to be most important in helping us to survive.
TR: I think a lot has to do with the same thing that we’re doing by involving the community, which invites more people to come in, and making it more than just a buying experience.
AL: More like a Mayberry experience.
TR: Right. Aunt Bea’s here—the whole thing. Exactly!
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For more information on MindFair Books, go to https://www.benfranklinoberlin.com/mindfair
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Anita Lock is a freelance book reviewer, proof-reader and editor based in Oberlin, Ohio.