California Booksellers Go Green, Sell Green, and Save Green

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Booksellers have long championed environmental issues, but 2008 seems to be the year of "Green Retailing" as evidenced by the very positive response to everything green at this year's ABA Winter Institute. Independent booksellers across the country are among those at the forefront of the movement to become smarter, cleaner, more efficient retailers. As part of Bookselling This Week's ongoing coverage of ecologically aware retailing, this week we look at the steps several California booksellers have taken to not only help save the environment, but to save money, too.

Not only did Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena add a new "Living Green" section, which includes green titles and sidelines, management also made changes throughout the store to implement more eco-friendly designs, said Vroman's President and COO Allison Hill.

"We installed 'water free urinals' in our men's room; implemented a full recycling program that includes fluorescent bulbs, paper, cans, bottles, printer toner and cartridges, and e-waste (computers, monitors, etc.); hired a company to evaluate our lighting and make energy efficiency recommendations; and solicited ideas from staff," said Hill.

To help staff generate money-saving ideas, Vroman's has an ongoing "Olive Contest," which Hill explained via e-mail. "It's an urban legend at this point, attributed to many different sources, but the version I heard was that a flight attendant on an airline noticed that passengers always picked the olives off their salads. (Keep in mind this is back in the day when the airlines still fed us on flights)," said Hill. "[The flight attendant] reported this observation to management.... By eliminating the olives, the airline reduced expenses dramatically and saved a million dollars over time."

Vroman's has taken this parable to heart and adapted it to create a win-win situation for the store and its staff. "We offer a paid day off once a year to the employee who comes up with the olive idea for the year -- an idea of how to save the company money and/or make the company more profitable," Hill explained. "Many of the ideas are 'green,' often saving money and energy."

Hill said she used a wide range of resources to find ideas for improving energy-efficiency. "We've done the research for our green efforts on our own," she said. "I've subscribed to various green websites and blogs; researched ideas on our local Department of Water and Power and gas company websites; and looked for ideas in the books and magazines we carry."

Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler's Books in Menlo Park also added a "Go Green" section. He reported that many customers see shopping locally and eco-awareness as joint issues. "When people buy something, they feel like they're voting with their dollars. That's why being green is so important now. People are becoming aware of their impact on the community and the planet."

Kepler is founder and chairman of the independent business alliance Hometown Peninsula, which has plans to ask a variety of local organizations (Sustainable Silicon Valley and others) to present to the group ways to "green your small business."

Meanwhile, Kepler's has added green sidelines to its inventory, including energy-saving bulbs and an expensive impulse item called Solio [], a solar-powered charger for handheld devices. Kepler told BTW that he had worried about ordering the nonreturnable and pricey chargers, but soon realized that when it comes to electronics, customers don't balk at dropping a hundred dollars or more. To date, Kepler's has sold 45 Solios at $120 a piece.

Being green has been a money-saver as well as a money-maker. When Kepler's participated with the store's landlord in a lighting retro-fit last summer that replaced fixtures and bulbs throughout the bookstore, its energy bill was reduced by about $500 per month.

Pete Mulvihill at Green Apple Books in San Francisco reported that some simple operational changes -- which he described as "not terribly unique, but surprisingly money-saving" -- added to his business' bottom line as well.

Green Apple bought about a dozen new blue recycling bins, put them next to each garbage can around the stores, and also reminded staff to redouble their efforts. Mulvihill said since the city charges for trash pickup, but not for recyclables, "this small investment in time and $200 worth of blue bins allowed us to go from two black (trash) bins and one blue (recycling) bin to one black and two blues, which lowered our garbage bill by $2,000 for the year!"

Green Apple also cut its electricity bill at a nearby "temporary store," which was opened to purge a warehouse of used books. A representative from a local green program approached Mulvihill and explained that the city would subsidize the installation of new energy-efficient lights in the store. The expense incurred by Green Apple was $200 after the city picked up the rest of the $2,200 tab. The investment paid for itself within two months and the paperwork was minimal.

In fact, city bureaucracy itself might be experiencing its own renaissance of efficiency. Mulvihill explained that a San Francisco organization facilitated the grant application that subsidized the new lights. "It's a city program designed to help small businesses take advantage of city programs," he said. "But it works."

At Lafayette Book Store in Lafayette, store owner Dave Simpson decided instead of offering paper or plastic bags, he'd offer something better -- nothing.

"Books aren't like apples that are going to roll around in the back of the car," said Simpson in an interview with Sustainable Lafayette. Only rarely do people actually 'need' a bag. So we stopped providing them!"

What the store provides instead is a $1 tote bag, which it sells below cost. While store staff gets the occasional eye roll, nearly all of its customers are happy to keep bags out of the landfill.

Brad Jones at BookSmart Enterprises in Morgan Hill said the bookstore reuses whenever possible. Customers are asked to return BookSmart bags and other stores' bags as well.

In addition to recycling assiduously, BookSmart has instituted a number of initiatives to keep the store, and its community, green. "We're a collection center for household batteries," said Jones. "We are a pick up point for free office recycle boxes from the city. We turn everything off at closing time that we possibly can, and we keep the thermostats at 68 and 74."

In the works is "an initiative to get re-useable shopping bags for the downtown that we could use in all the stores and return them to any store in the program," Jones added. "We want to call it 'City Bags' a la 'city bikes' like Portland." --Karen Schechner

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