Q&A | Chuck and Dee Robinson of Village Books

“Chuck and Dee are doing what they want.”

This matter-of-fact headline introduced a profile of Chuck and Dee Robinson, owners of Village Books in Fairhaven, on the front page of the Bellingham Business Journal’s first edition in November 1992. According to the Robinsons, who opened the bookstore more than three decades ago, the rubric still rings true today.

Independent retailers in the book industry face stiff competition. The early-90s sprout of “big-box” stores and the birth of the cyber marketplace drove some independents to close and others to radically alter their business models.

Yet despite the challenges, Chuck and Dee Robinson said their mission has never changed: don’t just sell books, create a local cynosure – a space for people to meet, browse shelves and debate merits of the latest best seller.

BBJ: In 1992, what did you think was going to be your biggest challenge over the next two decades?

Chuck: We were just beginning to see the roll-out of the national chains’ big-box format, so Barnes & Noble was around at that time. It was also the year I became president of the American Booksellers Association. I remember the biggest challenge that booksellers thought they would face at that point was national chains going into communities where there were already established stores. That really was at the forefront of everybody’s minds, and I think for a couple of years that did turn out to be the biggest challenge.

The unanticipated one that hit us later on – probably in 1994—was online sellers, of course very specifically Amazon.com. In ’92, the Internet was pretty much unknown. It continues to be a major challenge, not the only challenge we’re facing, but certainly a major challenge at this point in our existence.

Actually in truth, we sold books online before Amazon did—but somehow I didn’t become a billionaire.

Dee: Our response to the big-box stores – what they called the “superstores”—was growing the physical size of our bookstore, which turned out in retrospect to probably not have been such a good idea. In response to the big box stores it was, but they turned out to not have the effect on our business that we had thought.

I think the Internet and the online book sales have been more of an issue. Nobody imagined what the Internet was going to be like back then.

Chuck: The thing about the Internet that we hadn’t anticipated, which all kinds of retailers are facing at this point, is what’s called the “showrooming effect.” Thirty-seven percent of all books that are being bought online, whether it’s a print book or an e-book, have been seen first in physical locations.

BBJ: So someone comes to the store, sees a book and then goes home and orders it online?

Dee: They don’t even need to go home.

Chuck: Yeah, they can order it on their cellphone. So, that’s a challenge that obviously in ’92 we never would have guessed. I mean think about what a cellphone looked like in 1992 – it was essentially a brick. So that’s a quite a change.

BBJ: After hitting some financing snags while developing Village Books’ current location in Fairhaven, you chose to give up ownership of the building in 2004 in order build residential units above the store, which was your longtime dream. Are you still happy with that compromise? 

Dee: I don’t think we regret the decision we made. We ended up with what we wanted. Ever since the bookstore started we wanted to live above the store, and it took us a long time to get to that point. But we’re very happy with that. It just makes our lives so much easier. Compromise is a daily part of running a business, I think.

Chuck: One of the things that we discovered as we were going through making that decision, which I think pertains to a lot of decisions in business or in people’s lives, is we were focusing on a strategy of owning the building. At some point we said: Let’s instead look at what we want the outcome to be.

What we decided was important to us was the design of the building, controlling our costs and having a place to live, which was the personal part. We focused on the outcome and said, “Is there another strategy that could get us there?” I think that’s a key thing that a lot of people lose track of, not just in business but in life—getting so locked into what their strategies and their tactics are that they forget about what the outcome is they’re trying to achieve.

The focus of our business, our mission, has always been community. If we thought our mission was to sell books exclusively, we would’ve lost track of things a long, long time ago. Selling books, while that is incredibly important to us, is a strategy to help us create community.

BBJ: What do you think an independent “brick and mortar” bookstore will look like 20 years from now? 

Dee: It will probably be smaller than [Village Books today]. Obviously, in 1992 there was no way we could foresee the technological changes that would happen in our business. I can’t imagine now, even in 10 years, what the technology is going to be.

Chuck: It’s hard to imagine 10 weeks from now.

Dee: It changes so fast. I still think they will be a gathering point for like-minded people. The author visits will still be an important part, and it might not even be physical visits – already there are a lot of authors doing Skype presentations to stores and to book groups. But I think that the gathering of people together to talk about books and to talk about ideas is still something that will happen in bookstores.

Chuck: I like the community center concept – that whole idea of a third place that’s not home and not work. It’s a semi-public space where people meet and exchange ideas and see each other.

However, what portion of the publications will be e-books and what will still be print I think is still a very open question. We’re very, very early in the e-book game, even though the notion of them has been around for well over 20 years. When I was involved in a forum with CEOs of the major publishing companies—this was probably 1995 – they were already talking about e-books.

Dee: At that point they determined it was not going to be a major part of their business.

Chuck: Yeah, it wasn’t going to be a big deal. It’s interesting because consultants from McKinsey & Company, one of the biggest management consultant firms in the world, were there with us in that room. At the end of presentation they concluded that e-books would be some part of the business, but not a big part of it. Then I remember one of the consultants said, “In terms of full disclosure, we should also tell you that we’re the people who told the phone companies that cellphones weren’t going anywhere.” So, I guess they doubled down and predicted right the second time.

I do think with e-books there will be some balance struck out there, and I think one of the things that shows that’s true is the fact that the most avid e-book readers today are also some of the most active print book buyers.

Dee: Right  – those are the people who use e-readers while traveling, but when they’re home want a physical book. We’re actually seeing a little bit of backlash from unhappy e-reader users who are going back to print because they don’t like the reading experience on e-readers. So who knows how much of that will occur in the future?

Chuck: With any trend, there’s a certain amount that’s false and there’s a certain amount that’s a real trend. I certainly think that there’s a trend to e-books—I wouldn’t doubt that for a minute. The e-book sales are going to continue to grow.

But I do think Dee’s right. There’s a long history of people who bought some machine but don’t use it anymore. I mean, I bet there are a thousand camcorders in Bellingham that haven’t taken a video in years.

Of course this is as big of a challenge now for publishers as it is for retailers. If you’re preparing to print the new John Grisham novel, how many do you print if a certain percentage of them are going to be sold as e-books?

BBJ: What would you tell an entrepreneur today who is in the same spot you were when you first started? 

Dee: If you love something, are passionate about it and you’ve done some market research – I would say go for it. If you’re not passionate about it, then find something else.

Chuck: I think it goes back to that earlier point of focusing on what the real outcome is. I don’t think very many people become successful or remain successful by focusing on money. The focus has to be on the bigger purpose of what you‘re doing and why you’re doing it. That ties back to passion. I think you increase your chances of success by looking at where you want to go, even before you start thinking about what you want the legacy of your business to be.

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