Friday, November 12, 2010

know your grapes

During a recent visit to New York, I found myself craving a classic diner breakfast one Saturday morning. I ducked into the Chelsea Square Restaurant on 23rd and 9th avenue, but there were dozens of other choices as I walked from Grand Central to the West Village.

I thought to myself, how is it that while food options in the city have exploded since I first visited NYC thirty years ago, I can still have essentially the same delicious, greasy urban family-owned Manhattan breakfast experience I enjoyed back then? Indeed, except for a few unconvincing menu nods to vegetarians and a couple non-Greek ethnic offerings, it could have been 1974 at the Chelsea Square Restaurant. (It’s been there since 1965, according to a newspaper clipping on the wall.)

As usual, I immediately translated this puzzlement to my ongoing worry over the state of bookselling. How is it that this sector of independent food retailing survives? Like booksellers, they are selling a product that is widely available in cheaper incarnations, has a short shelf life, and is subject to the fickle whims of popular taste. What is the secret of their resilience?

Also as usual, I’m not afraid to generalize even though I may not know what I’m talking about. (What really is the state of the NYC diner business? Maybe it’s on the verge of collapse.) But I noticed a few things the diners do that can’t hurt:

- Food quality is consistent and good, portions are big, prices are reasonable. People know what to expect and they get it;
- It’s a space that’s welcoming to all comers and classes;
- There’s always a very hands-on management;
- There’s no apparent skimping on staff and service;
- Regulars are greeted by name;
- There are gestures toward change but nothing dramatic. The fried potatoes will always have that distinctly orange NYC diner glow.

Of course, real estate and myriad other issues make running a small business in Manhattan a nightmare. But I’m always struck by how much neighborhood retail and services seem to thrive there, benefiting from high population density and low car use. Those conditions aren’t necessarily extant where most indie booksellers ply their trade. (I think of my own charming neighborhood shopping street and its bookstore, cleaners, drug and grocery- and relative dearth of pedestrian traffic.) But I do think there are some universal survival lessons to be found in the resilient greasy spoons of Manhattan.

About a week later, I returned to Milwaukee and took my mother out to breakfast. Though she is a woman who thinks that if you’ve paid more than five dollars for a meal you’ve probably been robbed, I wanted to try out a new breakfast place that’s gotten rave reviews.

Blue's Egg is the anti-Chelsea Square. The menu is elaborate, trendy, and chef-driven. There is a mission statement. Some of your bill goes to worthy causes. It is a comfortable space that turns into a sophisticated bar/bistro at night.

Mom was not that impressed with the fancy menu and wordy descriptions. “Eggs are eggs,” she observed. But Blue’s Egg improbably won her over with the smallest gesture, something that I hadn’t even noticed but which she couldn’t stop talking about: they served a small bowl of grapes before they’d even taken our order.

And, once again, I couldn’t help thinking about bookselling applications.

I wonder if building a competitive edge on a foundation of big abstractions is enough anymore. Concepts like “we have a big inventory” or “we have a knowledgeable staff” sound good, but as a customer I’m more apt to get the itch to visit my favorite bookstore because of particulars: I want to see what's on that one really smart display table that changes every week, not because the store stocks a lot of books in general. Or because it’s Saturday and I know Bev will be working, not because of the smart staff in general.

And, to get back to the grapes, as much as I’m drawn to stores that will predictably satisfy my specific book urges, I also like places that will find ways to surprise me with small gestures. You can’t really say in advance what the gesture should be – that’s the point- but anything that makes a customer leave the store smiling probably counts. (A water bowl for dogs outside the door, corny as it sounds, always makes me feel better about a business.)

Many of my retail choices are based on convenience. But beyond that, where more discretionary retail loyalties come into play, my affection tends to go to places that satisfy some small, idiosyncratic preferences. And to those who have mastered the art of the gesture.

For years before it was swallowed and stripped of any hint of personality, Midwest Airlines baked and served chocolate chip cookies on board their planes. Incredible. Milwaukee people still talk about that, wistfully.

Than Brothers Vietnamese restaurant on University Way in Seattle follows up your pho with a complimentary plate of delicious little cream puffs. The place is always packed.

Almost before you sit down at Ann Sather’s Swedish restaurants in Chicago you’re presented with a delicious basket of cinnamon rolls and limpa bread. New customers are dazzled and old ones keep coming back for it.

And my local food co-op, Outpost Natural Foods, which I support for many reasons, wouldn’t get a fraction of my business were it not for Little Oaties, the most delicious cookies on the planet. It’s one item among thousands, but addicting enough to get me there regularly.

The challenges of running a viable business are so immense, and it must be annoying to hear kibitzing from the sidelines. But speaking as one book-lover and former bookseller, I’d advise my colleagues to step back and ask themselves- keeping in mind Mrs. Eklund’s breakfast reaction- “What are my grapes?”

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