Moravian Book Shop lights up for Christmas on 428 Main Street on Dec. 3, 2014. The Book Shop is the oldest continually operating bookstore in the world and was founded in 1745. (Elissa Miolene/B&W photo)

Moravian Book Shop competes with online retailers


America’s first book shop is still thriving in the age of audio books and Kindles.

During the winter, Christmas ornaments and glass stars line the walls of the more than two-century-old Moravian Book Shop. Signature beeswax candles, Bethlehem mugs and freshly baked Moravian sugar and ginger cookies regularly fill the shop.

In a book industry that is dominated by Amazon’s online low prices and seemingly limitless selection, the independent bookstore has managed to keep its doors open since 1745.

“It’s a growing process,” said Lisa Girard, the general manager of Moravian Book Shop. “The bookend is where our grassroots are, but you have to change a little bit, and we are going to have to keep evolving with the times and what people are looking for.”

The store had an online presence beginning more than 20 years ago but most recently introduced a new website using WooCommerce on a WordPress platform. 

“We don’t have everything in our store online, but we do have a good selection,” Girard said. “Especially things that are local, like the stars, beeswax candles and things that are related to the Moravian community.”

Don Cunningham, the president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, said small businesses like the Moravian Book Shop need to have an online presence to stay competitive.

Yuliang “Oliver” Yao, a Lehigh professor of information systems and the chair of the management department, said some products are more suitable online than others.

“Not all products are suitable for online purchasing,” Yao said. “Products are typically divided into two categories: experience products and standardized products.”

Experience products allow consumers to get a feel for a product or try it out before they buy them. Cars most people test drive or wedding gowns that a bride tries on for fit, color, style and material are both items that fit the category and are not frequently purchased online.

Standardized products have specifications that are easily described, such as books or CDs.

“Standardized products are the reason why bookstores were the first to go,” Yao said. “Books are a product that are ideal to sell online because they are very standardized. You can see the title, see if it’s a paperback or hardback and check the author, and I know exactly what it is — I don’t need to look at it in person before I make the purchase.”

Girard said the Moravian Book Shop offers some books online but not every title they offer in store, because it would take a lot of manpower to post them all online.

Shortly after launching its new website in September 2017, the shop participated in its first Cyber Monday, offering a 15 percent discount on online purchases.

“Again, this is something new for us, but it was good,” Girard said. “Now people seem to be catching on because we are definitely seeing a huge upswing in the use of our internet and internet orders. I hope that next year we can double the success we are having on that day.”

As for in-store purchases, Girard said books are often purchased by customers who entered the store looking for gifts.

While books might not bring people into the store, customers often end up in the book department. Since Bethlehem is a tourist-driven town, especially during the winter months, Girard said she hopes the online website brings more customers in after they view the shop’s offerings.

“It’s amazing how they have competed with the competition,” Yao said. “Maybe it’s because of Main Street, but I am positive that the store is under a lot of pressure with e-commerce.”

While the store continues to adapt with the times, Girard said she credits open collaboration with the community and lifelong customers.

By working with schools to supply book fairs, hosting events like book signings and serving as a meeting space for local book groups, the Moravian Book Shop has successfully operated for 272 years and counting.

There was a little slump in the book world and yes, we are competing with the Amazons and the (Barnes and Nobles) of the world,” Girard said. “But we are small and personalized. We have very knowledgeable staff and take pride in our service and that is why people are true to us — loyal customers that keep coming back for years.”

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