Wi4 Speaker to Share Insights From Indies Coast to Coast

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Robert Spector

Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way, Category Killers, and other business titles, will be the featured lunch speaker on Saturday, January 31, at the American Booksellers Association's Fourth Annual Winter Institute.

Spector recently traveled the country interviewing thriving independent business owners, including three ABA member stores, to glean their strategies for success. He'll be discussing these core strategies, to be covered in his upcoming book, tentatively titled The Mom and Pop Store (Walker, September 2009), during the Saturday Lunch at Wi4.

As a frequent speaker at national and international business conferences on retail management, Spector focuses on customer service as a cardinal virtue. He often points to the success of Nordstrom, but his roots are in small business. He grew up working at his family's store, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The business, Spector's Meat Market, was the inspiration for The Mom and Pop Store.

Spector acknowledged that small business owners might balk at the term "Mom and Pop." "Some see it as pejorative or that it means that they're small time, but I view it as the opposite of small," he said. "Mom and Pop stores are the basis of the economy, most jobs come from these stores. They are an important part of the community." He also noted that his book does not just cover Mom and Pop stores, but Mom and Mom, Pop and Daughter, and other family combos.

The Mom and Pop Store, which Spector characterizes as Studs Terkel's Working meets Charles Kuralt's America, is part first-person narrative, part business book, and part retail history. The first section is something of a memoir that describes his father's dedication to customer service at the market. "My father had many Eastern European immigrant customers, and he could speak to them in their various Slavic languages. That's customer service," said Spector. "When I'm speaking to Dell, or another large company, I ask them how many people on staff could do business in four languages."

The other two sections are divided into a road-trip narrative about his travels around the country, as well as profiles of businesses in his own neighborhood of West Seattle. The road-trip section includes visits to Village Books in Bellingham, Washington; Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Washington, D.C.; and Octavia Books in New Orleans.

What Spector saw in each bookstore and in other successful indie businesses are three key traits. "Entrepreneurial vision -- it was not necessarily that they were inventing something new, but that they could put their own little spin on the idea. All had staff and owners who were willing to work hard," he explained. "And all could adapt to change, whether that was a change in the market or in the neighborhood."

Spector knows that these business concepts are probably not new to many booksellers. "The essential nature of one person trading with another person has been going on for thousands of years," he said. "It hasn't really changed all that much, except there's new technology, but the essential relationship remains the same."

Spector said he's known Village Books owners Chuck and Dee Robinson since the mid '90s. He discovered that when local Bellingham businesses are looking to recruit employees, they'll give them a tour of the city, and Village Books is always a stop. After visiting the Robinsons, he met with Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade at Politics and Prose, where he was impressed by how embedded the bookstore is in the community and its extensive events calendar. His third stop was at Octavia Books. He talked with Tom Lowenburg and his wife, Judith Lafitte, as well as several area restaurateurs. Said Spector, "It was essentially the Mom and Pop stores that brought back New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina."

In addition to meeting the three key criteria for success, each bookstore was a community center and anchor for its neighborhood. "They're what makes each neighborhood different," Spector said. "I don't want to see Gap, and Starbuck's, and the usual suspects everywhere I go. These Mom and Pop stores are great unique places that have local pride."

Booksellers will learn a lot more about what Spector gleaned from successful small businesses across the country at Wi4's Saturday lunch, which be held from 1:15 p.m. - 2:45 p.m. in the Salt Lake Downtown Marriott's Grand Ballroom. --Karen Schechner