Won't you be my neighbor? (Brazos Bookstore's new loyalty program)

To be truthful, I have mixed feelings about Brazos Bookstore. As a reader, I think it's Nirvana, of course. But as a hometown writer who's never been shown one speck of love by them in ten years and seven books...well, I have to say they suck like those stupid stupid boys who never asked me out in high school probably because they were intimidated by how smart I was. In any case, I have to hand it to Brazos that they do an amazing job of not only surviving but thriving while more and more independent booksellers wither and die.

So what makes Brazos different? For starters, the author events. They've trained, nurtured, and husbanded a growing audience for both big name and emerging author events. So many stores completely blow off that opportunity. Midlist novelists are an endangered species these days, and what little hope we have of survival is hinged to stores like Brazos. Their web site is a little lumpy, but it offers the opportunity to buy books online from an indie. Gotta love that.

In 2006, Brazos weathered hard times by bringing in a dozen investors at a premium of ten grand each, and -- from a distance, at least -- that appeared to really light a fire under the place. (In a good way.) Yesterday, PW reported on Brazos' new incentive program that allows people to invest (sort of) at a lesser level.

“It’s a tough business,” store manager Jane Moser told PW. “We think anyone who becomes a Friend of Brazos is getting a lot for their money. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

I might be spinning that a bit differently in my own head, but I agree.

Saith PW:
Dubbed “Friends of Brazos,” annual membership starts at the $50 “Manuscript Level,” which bestows an invitation to one private author event, an evening with publishers' sales reps previewing forthcoming titles, and 20% off any in stock title four times a year. Subsequent levels, including “Paperback Level” ($150) and Hardcover Level ($500), offer more private functions, such as author dinners, and additional discounts. Membership tops out at the “First Edition Level” which costs $1,000 and offers, in addition to other benefits, a ticket to the UP Experience (a day-long seminar held in Houston in February that features featuring 20 speakers and is modeled on the TED [Technology Enterntainment Design] conference). “We can’t compete nose to nose with the chains on discounts, so we’re doing something different,” said Moser.

Asked if customers might balk at the idea of a $1,000 loyalty membership, Moser acknowledged that it might seem like a lot, “until one realizes The First Edition level is actually a bargain, considering a ticket to the UP Experience alone costs $1,000.”

Okay...but c'mon. If I consider that First Edition level membership (and I am considering it) it's not about the UP Experience ticket, for which I would not even joke about paying a thousand bucks. (I'm sorry, darlin', but come on. I don't care if it's a one day seminar at which I'm sported about on the shoulders of Chippendale dancers. That's...Come. On.) It's about joining with others to support this store because I want to do my part to create a culture in which stores like Brazos are supported.

The "Friends of Brazos" program is different from the discount memberships at B&N or Borders because it's not about saving money, it's about being in a relationship with this store. It asks people to recognize the value of books in general and indie booksellers in specific. It frustrates me that they'd even try to pitch it as some kind of Mattress Mack bargain in fiscal terms. It doesn't work on that basis. The real issue is this: Do I want to pay twice what WalMart is asking for the latest Elmore Leonard novel? No. But do I want to live in a world where WalMart has sway over decisions in the publishing industry? Hell no! That's worth a thousand bucks to me, if I can spare a thousand bucks, and if I can't, it's certainly worth the hundred-fifty.

From the author's perspective (not to mention any agent you ask), the fiction market has never been tougher. If we allow the decline of indie booksellers and small presses to continue, we consign a whole lot of novelists to a lifetime of night shifts at 7-11 -- where they'll sit reading books that bear the WalMart stamp of aproval. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Something I remember from the little induction ceremony they do in the United Methodist Church -- when you become a member, you don't have to espouse a lot of dogma. They simply ask you if you are willing to be a good neighbor and support this community of faith "with your prayers, gifts, and presence". We have to face the fact that indie bookstores need no less from us.


boxing said…
I love independent bookstores, and I'm extremely grateful to those that support and hand-sell all sorts of authors, including those wading the treacherous mass market original paperback waters. I know of Brazos Bookstore by its stellar reputation only, but a couple of my favorites in the Houston area are Murder by the Book on Bissonet and Katy Budget Books on Fry Road. These two stores and their staffs are wonderful about creating a real book culture among their customers. I always feel welcomed and valued when I show up at an author event. It's hard to get these kinds of personal relationships at the chain bookstores and as for Wal-Mart, fahgeddaboutit. Books are simply one more product they sell.
Joni Rodgers said…
Yes, both those stores are great. Another Houston favorite of mine is Blue Willow Bookshop.

My all-time top two indies: Montana Book Company in Helena and Fact & Fiction in Missoula.
Suzan Harden said…
One of things I miss about my husband's hometown is the fact that an independent bookstore/coffee shop, a used bookstore and a county library are all within walking distance of my in-laws house (which is why I agreed to move 1200 miles back there if we can sell our house).

Thanks, Joni, for bringing back Octofloozy! Somehow that pulp image captures the foibles and ecstasy of the publishing biz perfectly. (C'mon, in the fifties, you know that octopus is the most action Octofloozy ever experienced.)
Joni Rodgers said…
Got this from Brazos manager Jane Moser:

I loved your post about our new program. You are right about so many things. Many customers had asked for additional ways to back the store. You nailed the concept of supporting an indie, but, I wanted to raise money for the store without "poor mouthing" too much. Not wanting to sound like Mattress Mac, but, I think Houston IS a discounting town, and that people would appreciate getting something back for additional support.

The Up Experience was offered as an additional perk and as a way of
asking for more money. Like you, I was incredulous when I heard about it last year. I couldn't imagine that it would work....$1000 for one day in a town where we are jaded by the regularity with which we get BIG names. They got 500 (mostly paying) people, however! Take a look at their website; you may be surprised.

One other comment: we in no way mean to limit what people can give. Several of the investors put in considerably more than the $10,000 minimum required by law for what is considered by the SEC a high risk investment.

And, make no mistake, we are an endangered species. That's why our hard work and the excellent support of people like you really matter. Thanks for valuing Brazos Bookstore and for letting us know.

Jane Moser, Manager
Brazos Bookstore

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