Schuler Books turns TikTok likes into love of reading

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Margaret Bulgarello, also known as Miss Margaret, loves books and is not what many might consider tech savvy.

The longtime early childhood educator and preschool teacher doesn’t own a computer, relies on a flip phone for calls and texts and only recently acquired an email address, which she checks occasionally at the library.

But she and her coworkers at Schuler Books & Music on 28th Street in Grand Rapids have become TikTok famous.

“I was really nervous,” Bulgarello said of the decision to help make TikTok videos in the store.

“Miss Margaret” speaks with News 8 Daybreak anchor Teresa Weakley.

When she first heard about the social media platform, she thought it had something to do with clocks. But she caught on quickly.

“I love to talk about what I’m going to find or choose. It’s really easy and I don’t have to try, it’s just being yourself,” Bulgarello said.

The mastermind behind the videos is a young woman named Hailey Ciesluk, who used to be a bookseller at the store until she applied to join the marketing department.

Hailey Ciesluk of Schuler Books in Grand Rapids speaks with News 8 Daybreak anchor Teresa Weakley.  (April 2022)
Hailey Ciesluk speaks with News 8 Daybreak anchor Teresa Weakley.

“One of the first things I said was, ‘You guys are gonna make fun of me, but we need to get a TikTok,’” she said. “I just knew from being a bookseller that we had an amazing group of people and it would work out so well, and it has.”

The videos, which often feature employees sharing their favorite books in different categories, have a huge following, typically getting hundreds of thousands of views. One video from March has more than 14 million views and counting, which no one expected.

“I went, ‘Oh my gosh, that many people?’” Bulgarello said. “And I thought, that many more people are going to pick up a book or they’re going to go on their audio book or they’re going to find it somewhere and they are going to read it.”

The effect of the videos goes beyond the number of views and comments — people are buying the books referenced in each video, too. Three of the books mentioned in the March TikTok video sold out nationwide, not just through the Schuler Books website, but also through other distributors.

Schuler Books marketing manager Alana Haley said more than one book has gone into reprint because of the sudden surge of popularity.

The books the employees have mentioned in their TikTok videos are not typically new books, but ones that have been around for many years, including “The Thief,” a Newberry Honor book by Megan Whalen Turner of Ohio. She wrote the book 26 years ago.

“I think that the most wonderful thing here is that you have people who love books and have this outlet where they can talk to 14 million people about a book they love,” Turner told News 8. “I think that’s probably the most wonderful part about the 14 million views, is the ability to share something you love with other people who will also fall in love with it.”

Schuler Books in Grand Rapids touts its robust TikTok following.  (April 2022)
Schuler Books in Grand Rapids touts its robust TikTok following. (April 2022)

The book is part of a series now in development for a movie through Disney. There is no date yet for when the movie might be made, but it could have even more fans ready to watch it thanks to the new interest.

Turner explained that in 1996 when the book was published, nothing like TikTok was even around.

“That was before Facebook, before Twitter, before Tumblr, almost before any of these things on the internet communities,” Turner said. “When I wrote ‘The Thief,’ you were lucky if you got a professional review and you might get the thoughts of three or four or five people who read your book… Over the years, that number has just expanded and expanded and expanded and it’s a wonderful thing that you can see what people think of your book.”

Author Elizabeth Wein also enjoyed a significant boost in sales for her book as a result of a Schuler Books TikTok video. She wrote Code Name Verity ten years ago and is getting ready to release a 10th Anniversary Edition. Her agent for her contacted her on March 19, one day after the TikTok video was posted, to alert her that her book for her was climbing the Amazon charts, up to spot 41 of all books sold on Amazon.

“We were all just kind of blown away,” Wein said, adding, “it not just shows the power of social media, but it shows the power of independent book sellers, and they have been responsible for the success of Code Name Verity from the start … this is just the boost that it’s going to need for a 10th anniversary edition coming out in May.”

That power has also led to professional changes for authors. Wein said there is now an expectation and obligation for authors to promote their own work on social media.

“I confess that I don’t use TikTok. I have a Twitter account. I have an Instagram account. I have a Facebook account. I keep a blog. I have a website, you know, I am a fairly adept social media user, but nothing that I have done has taken off quite like this,” Wein said. “When something actually sticks, it really makes you realize that all that shouting is probably worth it at some point.”

Ciesluk, the Schuler Books marketer who suggested the TikTok, continues to work with the other employees on creative, fun videos that showcase their favorite books, much to the delight of their new fan club on TikTok. She got what she called a “small raise” due to the impact of her ideas.

Schuler Books has not monetized its TikTok account, like other creators have, marketing coordinator Alana Haley said. She explained that being a business makes it seem like a conflict of interest, but “the increased book sales, and encouraging people to pick up a book, are all the reward we need.”

She said the bookstore has seen increased web sales and strong returning store traffic.

Bulgarello’s favorite effect of the videos is the reach they now have to share their passion for reading.

“If you can use a TikTok, something like this, and promote reading and promote things from your heart that you have loved to read and pass it on, it’s a whole new world,” she said. “And yes, I do TikToks.”

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