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The Reading Bug
The Reading Bug, an independent bookshop in San Carlos, Calif. (Photo courtesy of The Reading Bug)

Like many small, independent book sellers, The Reading Bug has done everything in its power to create a space and offer services that could differentiate it in a world increasingly dominated by Amazon.

One of the ways the San Carlos, Calif.-based bookshop has done that is through its Reading Bug Box, a monthly, subscription-based service that puts carefully curated, staff-selected books in the hands of children.

The Reading Bug was founded in 2008 by Diane Savage and her daughter-in-law Lauren Savage, with a desire to bring families together and promote a love of literacy. The boxes have always been another method of distinguishing their small business from the e-commerce giant. But on Tuesday, Amazon announced that it, too, was getting into the subscription game with Prime Book Box, a service offering a box of books every 1, 2 or 3 months for $22.99/month.

GeekWire reached out to Reading Bug Box to get some perspective on what it’s like when Amazon again enters an arena where a small business is trying to make a go of things.

“As a local, independent bookstore, we saw a need for something that was different in the book subscription box world, and thought that we were uniquely positioned to provide it,” Lauren Savage said, via email. “Most subscriptions are fulfilled at a fulfillment center and everyone gets the same thing. We wanted something more personalized, more like the service we provide customers who walk through our doors. As a result, The Reading Bug uses our expert bookseller staff to curate each box to the child’s unique age, interests, reading level and other criteria, we don’t just lump kids together as ‘3-5 year old boy,’ for example. Just like books, readers come in every shape and size — and a one-size-fits-all service doesn’t deliver on what it is that makes books special.”

The Reading Bug
The Reading Bug founders Lauren Savage, center, and Diane Savage accept a Small Business of the Year award in Sacramento, Calif., from State Rep. Jerry Hill. (Photo courtesy of The Reading Bug)

Savage called the Bug Box an extension of the physical store, and said longtime customers of the subscription model stick with it because the selection grows as their child grows.

“There’s a risk, of course, that our message gets drowned out by Amazon as they collect your personal data on Echo devices, market aggressively to their millions of Prime subscribers, and aggressively undercut local businesses on pricing,” Savage said. “That’s something we don’t have the means or the platform to compete with — but as long as people value the special touch of an independent bookseller, spread the word about us and the service we provide and, importantly, continue to shop at their own local, independent bookstores, we still have a chance!”

Read more of Savage’s take on competing against Amazon in the Q&A below:

GeekWire: What does this move by Amazon mean for your business?

Reading Bug: “Amazon’s return to books validates what we’ve known all along at The Reading Bug, that physical books are relevant and important — especially in childhood development. Reading a book out loud with mom and dad, receiving a book as a gift with an inscription, discovering and making your way through a chapter book for the first time are all important milestones that develop a lifelong love of reading and learning in children. Since our family founded our independent children’s bookstore in 2008, we’ve been focused on young readers and great books, and despite a push from Amazon and others into digital formats, we’ve seen continued growth and success.

“With Amazon entering the subscription box space, we’re of course worried about the impact they may have on our market, but we plan to continue doing what we’ve always done best, focus on the tangible, emotional experiences of discovering, gifting and reading books. We believe that’s an experience and value that only independent booksellers like ourselves can provide and that Amazon cannot compete with.”

Reading Bug Box
The Reading Bug’s monthly subscription box. (ReadingBugBox.com screen grab)

GW: Did you have any indication that Amazon would do this?

RB: “We didn’t have any specific indication that Amazon would do this, but they’ve been pushing their way back into selling books (with limited success) for the past several years, beginning with opening brick-and-mortar retail locations. We’ve seen a lot of success building a subscription business — based, in part, on the unfortunate reality that many towns across the country (and globe) now lack a local independent bookstore due to changes in that business driven by Amazon — so it’s not surprising that Amazon would see the same opportunity and make this move.”

Prime Book Box
Prime Book Box, which launched Tuesday, is available via invitation to Amazon Prime members. (Amazon Photo)

GW: How do you feel their service compares to yours, based on what they announced?

RB: “We are children’s booksellers. We eat, breathe and sleep children’s literature. We have story times in our store six days a week and witness, firsthand, how children respond to the books we’ve selected. We work with local schools to bring authors to our communities and learn about how they create their art. We speak with children and parents from all walks of life and develop a specific understanding of what books appeal to what ages, reading levels and experiences, and we put our reputations on the line every time we recommend a book.

“We began Reading Bug Box to extend that local store experience to families and communities that don’t have a local bookseller and we put all our knowledge and passion into finding the right books for each child — appealing to a picky reader or an avid one, helping find books for children with learning disabilities, or providing titles that match to a child’s interests or life situation. We listen to feedback and adjust our selections, we write personal notes of encouragement to readers, we create games — like Summer Reading Bingo — to encourage children to push their boundaries, and we care deeply about the experience of every child as they unbox their books. Those are the features of our service that make us unique, important and valuable — and they are the features that Amazon’s service cannot compare to.

“Anyone can put books into a box and ship them — Amazon, probably better than most — but that’s not what books and reading are all about.”

Examples of Reading Bug Box offerings on The Reading Bug website. (ReadingBugBox.com screen grab)

GW: What has been the impact of Amazon on your physical retail store in San Carlos?

RB: “We opened our bookstore at a time when many local bookstores were closing and when Kindle sales were spiking, so Amazon has always had an impact on the way we think about doing business. We set out to do what they do not — provide valuable, intimate, engaging customer experiences. Even our store design reflects this. We have a bookstore designed like an enchanted forest, with open spaces for community events, story times and reading. We also are serious about maintaining our children’s literature expertise. It may be easy to search for and find a specific title on the Internet, but where do you go when you need to find ‘the perfect book for a 4-year-old girl who loves horses and is about to become a big sister?’ or ‘a 7-year-old boy who is having trouble finding any books he enjoys reading?’ You go to your local independent bookstore, of course!

The Reading Bug
Author David Shannon speaks to 250 kids in The Reading Bug event space about his latest book. (Photo courtesy of The Reading Bug)

“All that said, it’s a tough market, and we do see pricing pressure from businesses like Amazon where customers are increasingly making all of their purchases. To counter, we continue to do what we can to educate, entertain and engage — which takes constant re-invention of our business.

  • In 2011, we expanded our retail location to nearly double its original size, adding more books for early readers and teens and an event space to host book-themed birthday, author visits, story times, craft times and more.
  • In 2015, we started Reading Bug Box (as a Kickstarter project) to expand our customer base.
  • In 2018, we began an original story podcast, Reading Bug Adventures, engaging children in a digital medium, opening their imaginations, and introducing them to new books and concepts.

“With Amazon’s size and scale, they’re always a threat — but the pressure forces us to think differently and focus on our strengths.”

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