"Business is like riding a bicycle. You have to keep moving or you'll fall down." This quote, pasted in the desk of Susan Hickey, is one that's helped her and co-managing partner Debbie Reifenstein peddle books in Alaska's capital city for 25 years.
Boasting two stores, Hearthside Books remains a strong presence in Juneau, despite competition from national chains, book clubs and the Internet. In 1998 alone, 20 percent of independent booksellers in the nation were pushed out of business, according to statistics supplied to Hickey by the American Booksellers Association. So how does Hearthside manage the competition?
"We can't compete on price, because we're paying Alaska overhead," said Hickey. "So we try to compete on customer service. We listen well to what the customer wants."
Before Hearthside Books first opened its doors, Hickey and Reifenstein wrote down all the book titles people requested. Armed with this list, the women visited a wholesaler in Kent, Wash., and carefully handpicked volumes the public wanted. Although today, for the sake of timeliness, many books are shipped to Hearthside via air, that first inventory was loaded into the bed of an old 1948 Dodge truck, which the women drove and ferried home to Juneau.
The women also listened when a national chain bookstore opened in Anchorage years ago. Hickey and Reifenstein were surprised shoppers didn't talk up the chain's low cost and vast selection. Instead, clientele raved about the chain's seating arrangements. So the women removed a table of books, bought chairs and small tables, and found furniture enhanced customers' shopping experiences.
A Bright Idea
The former schoolteachers were taking a break--Reifenstein, expecting her first child, and Hickey, reevaluating her career choice--when they and their husbands kicked around the idea of starting a small business. State jobs and oil dollars brought a lot of new people into Juneau in the 1970s, and Hickey and Reifenstein considered the residents at that time to be a highly educated population.
Although the town had a bookstore, the women believed there was room for another. Besides, they both loved books and thought it would be a fun business. In July 1975, they decided to go for it; and by September they opened their first store located downtown at Merchant's Wharf. An out-of-town sales rep predicted they'd never make it.
However, before opening the store, the women spoke with other independent booksellers and prepared a...