How often can you still find an independently owned bookstore, one with the local flavor leant by a used book section, a large collection of local histories, and books signed by local authors? Less and less often, as Eric Wilska, co-owner of the Bookloft on Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington, will tell you. In the 39 years since he opened the Bookloft he says he has seen the number of independent bookstores in Massachusetts west of the Connecticut River drop from thirteen to only four. However, it is no coincidence that the Bookloft is one of those four survivors.
Wilska admits that the book industry has changed dramatically since he opened the Bookloft in 1974, but he says that if you want to run a successful business the fundamental things still apply. You need to welcome your customers, make sure your business is clean and well lighted, hire good people, pay them well, and become good at what you do.
At the same time, you have to be ready to adapt to a changing market. Wilska describes himself as “bullish” on e-readers—the Bookloft carries an e-reader called Kobo—and he contends that the Bookloft is as fast, if not faster, than Amazon. In addition, the Bookloft was the first independent bookstore in the country to have its own associated print-on-demand business. Troy Book Makers has already printed nearly 500 books. While the venture is a stand-alone business, it is a “nice adjunct” to the Bookloft’s business, since it allows the Bookloft to sell an extensive collection of Berkshire-focused books that would not be available if Troy Book Makers did not print them.
With a business built on these principles, it is easy to understand why customers come in to the Bookloft and ask, “How are you doing?” Wilska appreciates people’s concern about the well being of the local bookstore, because he knows that the danger from the global bookselling behemoths is real. He recognizes that the “siren call of inexpensive Amazon prices” is powerful, but notes that if we let ourselves be seduced by those voices “ultimately, someone has to make up the difference.” And the difference will be in “higher taxes, more unemployment, an aesthetically different-looking town, and empty storefronts.”
When asked why he accepts BerkShares, Wilska says, “the mission of the BerkShares fiscally really makes sense. You know, to keep it in town. We all talk like that, but it’s a way to put your money where your mouth is.” Using his business as one example, Wilska explains how, “when money leaves town it really does affect your wallet.” When a customer spends money at the Bookloft, or any other local business, that money is circulated through the local economy in many forms that benefit the community as a whole. High school interns are hired, sales taxes are paid to the state, taxes are paid to the town of Great Barrington, gift certificates are donated, and salary is paid to local employees. If the money is spent, instead, at a company such as Amazon, the benefits to the community are “zero, zero, zero.”
“We’d really like to see more people using BerkShares,” Wilska concludes.