Eulogy for an Independent Bookstore
A small, independent bookstore near my house just announced that it is closing and as the only bookstore within twenty miles, this either says something about our times or my town. After having closed four bookstores myself, I am devastated for the booksellers and I’m wondering where on earth I’m now going to get my old R.L Stine books.
The news surprised me for an unusual reason…someone had just purchased the business. The current owner (“Patty”) had only been the owner less than a year, after buying it from a woman I’ll call, “Cindy”. I remember Cindy as gung ho when she took over the store years before that but I could tell she was losing interest shortly before she sold the business to Patty. In Cindy’s early years she was open about the fact that she didn’t know anything about running a bookstore but that she was willing to learn and she thought it would be nice to sit around and read books all day.
HAHAHAHA said every bookseller, ever.
In each of my visits to the store, I could see that Cindy was starting to realize how difficult it was getting new customers in the door and how difficult it was having to work most of those hours herself. She had a few part time employees but when someone was sick, the store had to close completely. Patty had been one of those employees who loved books and I liked her for that alone. When Cindy put the business up for sale, Patty said that if no one offered to buy it, then she would take it as a sign it should be hers. She was enthusiastic. However, after it became Patty’s, old problems from owners who probably predated Cindy, continued and I’m going to list them below. These are ways the small store could have been saved:
YOU MUST BE OPEN ON SUNDAYS
Number one rule. If you have a bookstore that is not opened on Sundays, I don’t take you seriously as a business. Sundays were some of the busiest and most profitable days at Barnes & Noble as we received an influx of church goers looking for something to do. If you are a religious owner, then you can always open up after your church services in the morning. If you try to argue that you bought your own business so you can have easy hours to be with your family on weekends, then your business will die. This is the most forehead smacking decision.
YOU MUST KEEP CONVENIENT HOURS
The hours for his bookstore were 10:00am – 5:00pm Monday through Saturday. These are fatal hours for most businesses, especially a bookstore as many parents need to get books for their kids after work or people might want to browse and buy after dinner. They can’t do that if you’re closed at 5pm. You don’t even give them a chance to buy the last minute school book in the morning before work. Being open say, noon to 7pm, will still help your bottom line while giving customers a chance to run out and get that book at night.
Those Saturday hours are not great, either. Saturday nights are big date nights at Barnes & Noble. You could have a special “Date Night and a Book” on Saturdays and offer discounted coffee.
THINK OF CREATIVE WAYS TO PROMOTE THE STORE
This store did have story times but they were not consistent. Let’s say you’ve decided to be open a few hours on Sundays. Make that a special story hour and craft for kids, every week. Sunday families are desperate for something to do, especially in the winter.
Look for the public access station and ask them if you can promote your store. Most of these stations are always looking for new content and are happy to help. Promote your story times by contacting news stations. Morning news stations (we had a monthly gig on WDTN’s Living Dayton Show) are also looking for content, especially if it has to do with kids or education. Just call them up,
Partner with schools for field trips to your bookstore for a “behind the scenes” tour. That way, the kids know that you exist and where you are. Then they will tell their parents.
YOU HAVE TO KNOW YOUR INVENTORY
For a couple of hundred dollars online, you can order an inventory system and PDT. This will allow you and your staff to scan each section and have all of your inventory in your computer. The poor booksellers at this store had to Google the book you were looking for and guess where it would have been shelved. After being pampered with BookMaster at Barnes & Noble, telling you exactly where the book should be, my heart ached for them. Sure, scanning is going to take some time but you can do one section per day or have a pizza party with your friends and scan as much as you can overnight.
By keeping track of your inventory, you can see which sections are trending. For example, I used to come in every week to buy the old teen books of my youth. When they dried up, there wasn’t anything pushing me to return to that particular store. If they tracked a certain author’s popularity, they could go online and order cheap copies of these titles and keep them in stock.
SELL HARD-TO-FIND BOOKS ON YOUR WEBSITE
After you know your inventory, you can whip up a site for cheap on WordPress or WIX with free “store” plugins. A used bookstore has one major thing going for it: you have the out-of-print books we want. You sell reader nostalgia. Where else can I get my Christopher Pikes from the 90’s or original Nancy Drews? Use this to your advantage and even if you can’t have your whole inventory online, put some of these books on your site and watch them get snapped up like hotcakes. Also, by going through WordPress or WIX, you can avoid paying Amazon or B&N for each one you sell.
YOU MUST BE EASY TO FIND
Nothing listed above would have worked if this one was not fixed first. The location for this store was probably the worst location for any business in town. It was hidden around the bend of a small strip mall, with no large sign out front. I lived four years in this town before I knew it even existed. Cindy explained that the rent was inexpensive compared to rent closer to the center of town. When Patty purchased the business, a larger loan was probably going to be needed to move the store and inventory to a better spot. At least a place where people can see it from the road.
YOUR WEBSITE MUST BE SNAZZY
Their website looked like it was made in the 1990’s and I even offered recently to make Patty a new one for free. She told me that Cindy was still making payments on their old one. It turns out Cindy had been roped in, years ago, by one of those website builders who commit you to their crappy looking stock sites. Do not let this happen to you. Go through WIX or WordPress (or someone who is cheap, like me). These websites allow you to promote your events on the front page and gather followers and email addresses easily so you can send coupons or announcements.
I don’t want anyone to think that this bookstore was incompetent. They also did great things. They worked with local artists and sold their bookish gifts in the store. They had an amazing yearly sale that drew big crowds, a sale where you fill up bags full of books and it’s only $5 a bag. They were very friendly and knew most of their customers by name. They had the best buyback system I’ve seen in a used bookstore, one that keeps the money passing through the store via credits.
And I know Patty was 100% committed. More people like her should be in the book business but that business is evolving and we have to evolve with it.