By early last January, the dry-heave-inducing economic crisis of the fall of '08 had settled into a grinding, merciless condition. One midweek afternoon, I stopped in my neighborhood bookshop in Portland, Oregon, to pick up a few titles that my wife needed for a community college class she was teaching. I was the only customer. The quiet felt ominous.
"Are you hanging in?" I asked Roberta Dyer, the owner, as she rang up my sale. I had been a steady customer at Broadway Books for more than a decade, although I hadn't visited the store for months. Dyer paused before replying, and I feared the worst.
"Our year had been awful," she acknowledged. "But then, in December, we had our miracle."
Dyer had operated the store for 17 years, fighting off challenges from franchise and online booksellers, weathering fads and slumps, building her business into a neighborhood anchor and a mainstay of Portland's community of readers. She was not a woman prone to moonbeam notions. Still, I assumed that her emotions had gotten the better of her in this instance, and that whatever stroke of good fortune had visited -- a family inheritance? a wealthy customer dying and leaving a windfall? -- had clouded her usually clear head and careful use of language.
Yet the remarkable story that she proceeded to tell me showed how two pillars of the old culture -- books and the traditional brick-and-board, owner-operated retail store -- had been upheld by the new technologies that are generally regarded as the old way's destroyer. It was a story about a parent and child connecting, despite and because of their generational differences; about blogs, burritos, and a tremendous record-setting snowstorm; and about the almost mystical staying power of the small local business. During this year, in this season, only the most hardened Scrooge wouldn't call that a miracle.
It all began a month earlier, on the morning of December 8, 2008, in the heart of the crucial holiday shopping season, when Broadway Books normally logged up to 25 percent of its annual sales. As she sat behind the counter of her empty shop, surrounded by piles of unsold books, Dyer realized that this season's yield would fall dismally, perhaps disastrously, short.
She had started the business in 1992, after a two-decade career as a book buyer for a local department-store chain. By the time I moved to the neighborhood the following year, Broadway Books was already established in the classic line of America's small, independently owned bookstores. In northeast Portland, you go downtown to Powell's for a used or hard-to-find book. If you're seeking a popular title, you might go to the Barnes & Noble at a nearby mall. When you're struck with the hunger for a necessary, sustaining book, however, you shop at Broadway Books.
Among the small stash of books I keep near my desk for instruction and inspiration, for instance, is a novel about prize-fighting titled The Professional, by the late, great sportswriter W.C. Heinz. First published in 1958 and reissued as a trade paperback in 2001, it's hardly the sort of book you would expect to be featured at a store run by a female baby boomer of progressive sensibilities. And yet I had discovered The Professional at Broadway Books, prominently displayed on the table on which Dyer showcases overlooked gems.
"I don't care whether it's a political biography or a daughter's memoir or a novel about baseball," she says. "I just like good writing, and the readers who share that taste have always found their way here." Always, that is, until last September.
"Starting last fall, I saw a hunted look in people's eyes," Dyer recalls. "There was a fear that went beyond being cautious or thrifty. It was as if people had lost faith in the most basic things. They were frozen. Nobody was buying at any of the neighborhood retail stores."
September bled into an equally grim October and November. Thanksgiving came and went, and the slump deepened. Now, with December performing worse than the average February, Dyer doubted she could keep her doors open through January. In the midst of this figurative storm, meanwhile, a real one now bore down on Portland: a once-every-20-years pelting of maximum winter that threatened to shut down the city, drive shoppers deeper into their devalued homes, and pound a final nail in what appeared to be Broadway Books's coffin.
"It was time," Dyer says, "to think about an exit strategy."
But first, she decided to phone Aaron Durand, her 28-year-old son, who was working for the shoe company Birkenstock USA in Novato, California. She needed to talk to Aaron about a book on music that he had asked her to find. But mostly, on that bleak winter morning, Dyer needed to hear her only child's voice.
"I can't get that title for you," she told him.
"That's OK," he said. "I'm in no rush."
"You're not listening. I can't help you. My distributors don't deal with that publisher. You're just going to have to go online, do some digging, and order the book yourself."
"Mom?" he said. "Are you OK?"
"I'm sorry, Aaron, but I can't help you with this."
The next day, he shot his father an e-mail. "What's the matter with Mom?" David Durand broke the news to his son: Broadway Books was on the ropes.
Aaron was stunned. He had been 12 when his mother went into business. She was so devoted to the store that the family jokingly referred to it as her other baby. How could she stand losing it? Aaron wondered. He opened his laptop, logged on to his Twitter page, and, barely thinking, began to type.
If you're in Portland do me a favor? Buy a book at Broadway Books. No wait, buy 3 of em...
He usually tweeted his friends on the song that he happened to be listening to or on the results of his latest round of disc golf. But now the words came harder. Then inspiration struck.
...I'll buy you a burrito the next time I'm in town, Aaron typed.
He and his friends used burritos as code. It was cooler to say "I'll buy you a burrito" than "I owe you five bucks." He didn't know where the idea came from to connect burritos to his mother's predicament, but he liked the way it sounded. He decided to develop the connection further on his blog, everydaydude. The site was lucky to receive 20 hits a month, and half of those came from his mother, but what sharper tool lay at hand?
The madness that is the current state of affairs in our economy honestly hasn't bothered me much...My CEO has promised openly that our company will not be letting go of anyone. Thus, I've just managed to go about my business as usual. I'm not afraid to spend money on things I want...I own no stocks, don't even know how to buy em. I generally live check to check and I like it that way...Sometimes it takes a slap in the face to wake someone up...Yesterday I was on the receiving end of the wakeup call.
Aaron typed on, explaining the importance of Broadway Books, both to the Portland community and in his mother's life. He related how he had learned that the store was in crisis. He reported that he had sat at his desk near tears, but then his despair gave way to anger and finally to resolve. He announced to the blogosphere that he had hit on a scheme.
So, here's the deal. I'll be in Portland to visit January 15-19, 2009. Meet me at Cha Cha Cha on SE Hawthorne in Portland on January 16 at 6 pm with a receipt from Broadway Books for over $50, and I'm buying your kind ass a burrito. I've got about a grand left on my one credit card -- told you I was a simpleton -- which equates to roughly 166 of you spending at least 50 bucks a pop....I'd never feel better about diving into a thousand-dollar hole...Pass this along. Getcha a free burrito! Support local independent business! Get off of the internet/your ass!
Aaron paused. He was no writer; in fact, despite his book-loving parents, he wasn't all that much of a reader. But he knew that his posting needed a clincher.
Understand that the economic sting will subside, will also fade into nothingness. If that seems a long shot, consider it optimism, a virtue I learned from growing up the son of my mother.
After logging the post, Aaron scanned the links lining the right-hand margin of his webpage: Jerk Ethic, Hidden Booty, huk lab, Kamp Grizzly, Ministry of Imagery, BikePortland, Woot, Hypebeast. Why not try to leverage his plea, beam it out directly to his friends in the Portland area? Even a few more sales would give his mom a psychological boost. She and the store could at least go down swinging. He returned to Twitter to put up a link to his blog entry, and within a few minutes saw that a friend in Portland had retweeted his offer. By that afternoon, it had been retweeted 30 times.
The story quickly jumped the firewall between private and public phenomena. Over the next three days, everydaydude hosted three times as many visits as it had received in the previous two months. Friends reported to Aaron that they had received the link to his blog posting from strangers. In the Portland offices of Nike and Adidas, the posting was pasted onto companywide e-mails. At the Portland ad firm Wieden+Kennedy, Jeff Selis, a producer and longtime Broadway Books customer, received an e-mail from his son's tutor containing a link to Aaron's blog. Selis immediately forwarded it throughout the company. Aaron's loopy, heartfelt plea, in short, had gone viral. Still, his mother remained ambivalent about the venture. "I wasn't sure I approved," Dyer says. "I was touched by Aaron's thoughtfulness, but at the same time I was sensitive about the state of the store."
But the genie was out of the bottle. The day after the blog posting appeared, Broadway Books logged 12 more sales than on the same day the previous year. The uptick continued over the next few days. Instead of the store's usual middle-aged patrons, the new customers were in their 20s and 30s: young shoe designers at Nike and Adidas; stocking-capped, wired-in, bike-culture types. They all bought at least three or four books, so they were clearly responding to Aaron's plea. Dyer watched with bemusement and gratitude but with no real hope. The surge would soon fade, she thought, once the snow hit and the city shut down.
The first wave of the storm arrived on Monday, December 15. The air turned a baleful shade of slate gray, an Arctic wind raked, and ice snapped tree limbs and brought down power lines. The front swept out to sea, but before the ice could melt, another storm followed, this one pummeling the Portland area with a foot of snow. Dyer, who lived nearby, managed to open the store, but as she looked out on ice-coated Northeast Broadway, she assumed that the party was over.
Instead, it was just beginning. Hungry for holiday-themed content, local media picked up the heartwarming story about blogs, books, and burritos. An article about Aaron's quixotic gambit appeared in the online edition of a weekly alternative paper. A network TV affiliate produced a segment for the nightly news.
Meanwhile, the deepening snow and ice prevented trucks from delivering packages from Amazon and other online booksellers. Driving was impossible or at best a hassle, and yet Christmas still loomed, and cabin fever was building. So why not do the righteous thing, many Portlanders decided, and travel on their own power down to the neighborhood bookshop that had been transformed into a location for a Frank Capra film?
As all this transpired, Aaron Durand, the wizard who had unwittingly conjured the magic, followed developments in his cubicle down in sunny California. "I was stunned," he says. "I just thought a few friends would read my blog, maybe a couple of them would buy some books, and when I came up to Portland in January, we'd have an excuse to get together and eat Mexican food. I had no idea I was capable of reaching all these people."
December sales at Broadway Books finished up 7 percent from December 2007, which had been the store's previous best month ever. Other retailers in the neighborhood were down 12 percent to 20 percent. "It made our year," says Dyer. "I paid every single bill, and we had a cushion going into the new year."
All that remained was for Aaron to make good on the deal he had struck with the blogosphere and stand an unknown number of people to a burrito at Cha Cha Cha, his favorite taqueria in Portland. The details that he had divulged on his blog were accurate; he had only about a thousand dollars of room on his lone credit card, and he assumed that that would disappear on January 16, the night of his thank-you party. A crew from a local TV station came out to chronicle the big night.
Aaron and his mother paid for 80 burritos, and the taqueria prepared 40 in advance. The turnout was small but enthusiastic, consisting mostly of friends of Aaron and his parents. He gave out 25 burritos and donated the remainder to the Portland Rescue Mission. Most of the guests declined the freebies, so his credit card was spared. The TV crew got its feel-good story for that night's newscast. The scene formed the grist for another posting on everydaydude.
Failure? Aaron wrote about the evening. Not a damn chance! As it turns out, no one went shopping for the burrito at the end of the economy's siesta!
After his vacation, Aaron returned to California, to his apartment in San Francisco's Western Addition, to skimming Frisbees on the Marx Meadow of Golden Gate Park, to the renovated airplane hangar that formed the headquarters of Birkenstock USA in Novato, and to his cubicle facing a wall-size window. On his first morning back at work, the company's CEO summoned Aaron to his office.
"I thought he was going to fire me because I'd spent so much company time on the Broadway Books project," Aaron says. "But instead, he told me how impressed he was by my innovative use of online social networking. He gave me a raise and promoted me into the company's marketing department."
One morning early last February, a few weeks after my first 2009 visit and more than a month after the events of last December, I stopped by Broadway Books shortly after Dyer had opened for the day. It was quiet. A middle-aged couple lingered to gossip and inspect the table of new arrivals but left without making a purchase. A few minutes later, a man came in to ask about a title he had read about in The New York Times Book Review. Dyer said the book hadn't been shipped yet, but she would be happy to reserve a copy for him. The man said no thanks and departed.
"That's the way the mornings often go," Dyer said. "Business will pick up this afternoon and over the weekend. Sunday is our busiest day."
She fell silent for a moment, watching the traffic pulse by on Broadway. "Of course, what happened in December didn't save us long term," she said. "Aaron's blog and the public's response formed a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and it only worked because it wasn't forced or premeditated. Lightning's not about to strike again, but once was enough. It reminded people about the importance of the independent neighborhood business. It drove home the fact that where you shop matters."
Then the phone rang. As Dyer handled the call, it occurred to me that the Broadway Books story might fall short of a miracle after all. Had the store not offered a product of value and been well managed over a long period of time, Aaron's inspired bolt of guerrilla marketing wouldn't have saved it. Had his relationship with his mother been less affectionate and respectful, he never would have generated that bolt.
Dyer finished the call, and another lull descended. She asked me what book I was reading. I confessed that, since the previous September, I hadn't read much of anything more challenging than the sports page. Paradoxically, the more I needed the solace and company of a good book, the less able I felt to read one. My attention span was shot. I burned time by staring at the computer or TV. I had surrendered to the scourge.
The bookseller gave an empathetic but unforgiving nod. "Follow me," Dyer said, leading me toward a table of staff picks. "I think I've got something you'll like."
John Brant is a Portlander and the author of Duel in the Sun, about the 1982 Boston Marathon.