Shakespeare & Co's Tumbleweeds & Community vs Audience(Cafe Society Quick Bite #3)

Paris's Shakespeare & Co's Membership Program is really a formalization of stellar decades-long community building efforts

Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s weekly magazine on the intersection of community and society — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team.

A few weeks ago Shakespeare & Co, the famous Paris bookstore near Notre Dame, announced that they had launched a membership program that was supporting them through the pandemic — up to $500 euros a year for exclusive content, a book club and more.

On digging deeper it became clear that this was actually simply an extension of community building they had been doing for decades with their famed Tumbleweed program, a writers in residence (literally) program that Shakespeare & Co run where they let writers sleep among the books in exchange for reading a full book every day and helping out around the shop.

Shakespeare & Co is a great example of building a true community, not simply an audience, of advocates that truly identify with your product, and investing and trusting your customers to be active parts of your business.

An early idea before we settled on building Maxwell was a plan to run membership programs for restaurants & bars. But we quickly realized that not enough bars or restaurants cared about long term loyalty. Some weren’t able to, they were just trying to keep their heads above water and survive. Others were more geared towards once a year experiences and so loyalty and community simply didn’t make sense.

But many others simply embraced an extractive business model of high priced drinks or bottle service and realized their status as the current “cool” spot wouldn’t last, so they were just intent on squeezing as much juice as possible out of customers in the short term.

The way I started to think of it was the Audience vs Community dichotomy:

Audiences must be engaged by you; Communities engage with you on their own. An audience is essentially just a group of people who might listen to you. Maybe they're subscribed to your emails or are sitting and listening to you speak at an event. Their interest is fleeting.

Most bars and restaurants were building businesses that leaned into the idea that your attention was fleeting, so why invest in you, and as such they were interested in building audiences but they weren’t keen on building communities.

But not Shakespeare & Co.

When the pandemic hit, Shakespeare & Co struggled like any other physical retail store. But they sent out an email to their loyal followers asking for help:

The email drew an overwhelming response: some 5,000 orders came in the first week alone, up from an average of around 100 a week. “It made me realise that people have their own relationship with the place and their own memories. It’s bigger than just us. Readers want to keep this alive.”

And they segued that into something more.

Paying from €45 to €500 for the year, people can support the store and get access to quarterly newsletters, customized gifts and an online book club.

I had to smile. Here was an example of a business that had clearly put in the hard work of curating an amazing community, and was able to fall back on it in tough times. They were the polar opposite of the bottle service nightclub, building to be around a century from now.

What was even more amazing though was that apparently the idea wasn’t even original . . .

Whitman said she had been inspired by Sylvia Beach, the founder of the first Shakespeare and Company in Paris, who started a similar club to get through the Great Depression. In exchange for an annual fee, members were invited to readings featuring the likes of TS Eliot, André Gide and Paul Valéry. “Ernest Hemingway put aside his fear of public appearances to do a reading,” she said. “It seemed so fitting to bring this back now.” 

My first thought was, well, why didn’t they do this sooner? With that level of loyalty, why didn’t they have a membership program years ago?!

And I’ll admit to a bit of an “I told you so” feeling, it took a damn pandemic to get spots to behave like we thought they should have behaved from the beginning, building communities, not audiences, formally engaging with customers who treated the spot like their own . . .

But that isn’t really fair to Shakespeare & Co because there is another twist — a program they called Tumbleweeds:

Tumbleweeds (as guests came to be called) are asked only to "read a book a day," help out in the shop for a couple of hours, and write a single-page autobiography for George's archives. Today, the bookshop has housed an estimated 30,000 Tumbleweeds, our shelves are crammed with autobiographies and stories of romances played out beneath the beams, and—most importantly—we have no intention of closing our doors.

To clarify, Tumbleweeds literally live in the bookshop among the books. Cots are pulled out every night for whoever is staying over that night.

There are so many things to love about this.

The trust they place in these people — clearly any one of them could burn the place down but there have been 30,000+ of them so far.

The investment in real relationships to build a community — I really doubt the few chores the Tumbleweeds do every day make up for the bother of coordinating & free rent, etc. . . . but Shakespeare & Co seems to understand that they are getting something else from the Tumbleweed initiative — investing in community pays its own dividends, and when you form a real bond with your customers, when they truly feel like what you’ve built is part of them, they will make sure you survive and thrive.

And that is in stark contrast to a lot of brands that talk about community but really just use it as a buzzword for audience.

What became clear is that Shakespeare & Co built a real community and has been running a de-facto membership & loyalty scheme for a long time, they just finally decided to cash out some of that investment during the pandemic.

When the pandemic hit I had to wonder if this was a moment of reckoning for the wider hospitality industry that had increasingly prioritized flash and short term extractive business models over substance and long term loyalty.

It remains to be seen how many local spots make the switch to permanently viewing their customers as a community instead of an audience.

Spots that don’t understand that at their core they are providing community centers, not facilities, but providers of camaraderie and meaning, won’t survive, but I believe those that take the lessons from Shakespeare & Co will be better than ever.

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And check out some of our deeper dinner discussions like why Soho House has had trouble scaling its community (and why we think miniclubs are the future)Possibility-As-A-Product: Superbad, Clubhouse & the Inciting IncidentGatekeepers & The WingInclusive Exclusivity, Sofar Sounds & Self-Cancelling Greek LifeFord Bronco, Blockbuster & Nostalgia Porn For A Simpler World and Amsterdam’s Radical Anarchist White Bikes & Community Hobbyists.

Have a great rest of the week!

David (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell Social Team