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“Real Retailer” is a monthly feature where we discuss industry strategies, trends, happenings, or just about anything relevant with toy and hobby retailers across the country. If you have something interesting to say and would like to be featured here, by all means tell us! Please contact press@toydirectory.com

Real Retailer
By Staff
November 1, 2002


Store Name:
Joseph-Beth Booksellers
Store Location:
161 Lexington Green Circle, Lexington KY 40503
Neil Joseph Van Uum

Name and Title of interviewee: Becca Jones: Kids' Store Manager

In 1986, Neil and Mary Beth Van Uum opened the first Joseph Beth Bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky. After moving to the Mall at Lexington Greene, the new store has grown to 40,000 sq. ft, with two floors of books, music, childrens' departments, and even a restaurant overlooking Lexington Greene Lake. Today, the Joseph Beth Group consists of six independent bookstores in three states.

ToyDirectory Monthly: How long have you been in business? Can you give a short history of how your company came to be?

Becca Jones: Joseph-Beth has been in the bookselling business for just over 16 years. We were a small independent, but through the hands-on leadership of Neil VanUum we have grown to include five other stores (including Joseph-Beths in Cleveland and Cincinnati, OH, and the acquired Davis-Kidd stores in Nashville, Knoxville, and Jackson TN) and we have become a real competitor against the chain stores.

TDM: Can you tell us a little bit about what your store offers for children?

BJ: We offer a wide variety of activities and programs for children of all ages. Whether they are with their parents "test-driving" some of our demo products, such as our "Thomas the Train" set or our musical mats, reading a book, or joining us for one of our regularly scheduled programs; everybody seems to be having a great time! We also have many popular authors [appearing] throughout the year to read and sign books. Recently we had Laura Numeroff, author of "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," come to our store--with an outstanding turnout! I view...our role in the Lexington community as an opportunity to expose as many children as possible to fun and educational experiences in a literary atmosphere.

TDM: Who is your typical customer in the kid's store?

BJ: I can honestly say that there is no "typical" customer. We have everybody from parents to grandparents, nannies to teachers, to children of all ages...who regularly shop in the kids' store. There are also adults like me who don't have kids, but still have a great love and appreciation for children's literature. We have an excellent Kids' Team that can help all customers (big or small!) find the right book, or introduce you to some great titles that you may have overlooked!

TDM: How do you let the public know who you are and what you carry?

BJ: As a bookstore, people know that they can come to us for great books. But they've also discovered that we carry a wide variety of unique gift and home items, along with a fantanstic assortment of toys, games and educational products. Our marketing department works incredibly hard to ensure that we also have interesting and informative events to provide to our customers and community. There is always something happening at Joseph-Beth. We're not just about selling books, as any customer will tell you, we are about the "experience."

TDM: Do you have special meeting-nights or promotions you routinely carry out?

BJ: Our promotions frequently change...but we do have some events that occur every month. We have book club meetings for different genres such as Science Fiction, General Fiction and the "Bridget and Beyond" book club. We have also teamed up with our cafe for the Dinner Club, where our chef prepares an exquisite meal from one of our cookbooks. Events or promotions that you can count on every year include our Summer Reading program, Book Week activities, and "Sale Day," where we discount all of our merchandise to 20% off.

TDM: Have your self-promotion or marketing efforts been worth the cost and effort?

BJ: Unlike the businesses that you see on television or hear on the radio, we do almost all of our marketing through self-promotion. Our main marketing outlets include our website, email newsletter, print newsletter, event postcards, and in-store banners and bookmarks. But by far, our number one marketing strategy has been word of mouth. I can't even tell you how many people come up to me and say that they live in another state...but were told that they "had" to come to Joseph-Beth. After an event like the American Girls Summer Camp, we'll have peers of the kids in attendance come up and ask me when the next one will be. It also helps that we have an incredibly strong community presence that we have built over the years through sponserships, cross-promotions with local businesses, and by maintaining great relationships with our educational community... I won't say that it's not a lot of effort, but it is certainly worth it. As an independent, we've learned a lot about doing things in a great good way without spending the big bucks to do it.

TDM: Why do you think customers come to your store, instead of ordering online or going to another store?

BJ: Many retail businesses will tell you that they are all about customer service. At Joseph-Beth, we mean it. There is not a "sales clerk" in our midst, we are all booksellers (from our owner, to the general manager, to the marketing department and floor staff) and we do it because we love to read, and love to spread the experience to others. Most of our booksellers have either obtained a college degree or are currently working on one, and surprisingly few actually major in English. Our ecletic educational backgrounds allow us to better assist our customers, whatever their needs. And we do it with a smile. We know that you can go to a chain and get a better price, or go on-line for convenience, but you [cant' replace] the personal service that you recieve at our store.

TDM: What special concerns does running a "store within a store" pose, especially when the product offerings within are slightly different in theme from the larger store?

BJ: What I have found over the years is that most bookstores that have a children's section run into the same problem: How do you get the main store booksellers to work as well in the kids' store as they do in the "grown ups" area? There is something about being surrounded by a lot of small children that intimidates most people--especially those who don't have children of their own! What I have discovered is that by becoming more familiar with the books and the product (reading childrens literature and playing with the toys!) booksellers can build a comfort zone. Even if they don't know what in the world the customer wants when they say "the red book about purple monsters that they had as a child" (50 years ago), one learns the right questions to ask to get more information, or perhaps suggest another book. It may not be exactly what they had [in mind], but it could be a book that they would love nonetheless.

TDM: Do you have products offered for sale online? Has this Internet presence helped your business?

BJ: In the last year we have set up an on-line ordering system where customers can buy on-line and have it shipped to them, or they can pick up their titles at our store. I think it's too early to say how much it has helped business, but it certainly hasn't hurt it!

TDM: How do you see the industry changing, and how it might affect your business?

BJ: Due to our current political and economical environment, I think that every business has had to make some changes and adjustments. People think twice about throwing their money around. Historically, however, it has been times like these that bookstores are more likely to do better than other local businesses. Books are an investment; when you purchase a book, the enjoyment will last you a lifetime. When you go to a movie, the enjoyment lasts approximately and hour-and-a-half. In perspective, consumers would much rather make an investment.



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