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What Local Bookstores Can Do

Discussion in 'Anything goes' started by Morris816, Sep 11, 2014.

  1. Morris816

    Morris816 Member

    Paraphrasing the title of this American Conservative article:


    I remember visiting locally owned bookstores when I was young and how I enjoyed going through what they had. In Bernalillo, N.M., there was a locally-owned used bookstore where I found a couple of books that I certainly would not have found looking in a Barnes and Noble.

    Anybody have any interesting stories about bookstores they visited, whether they are still in business or not?
  2. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    Found a gem of an old bookstore around the corner in a brick building from 1860. Went there last week for the first time and man alive does the dank and dew punch you in the nose soon as you step inside.


    This is the guy who runs it, Roger Harris.


    Says there are about 10,000 books in the place. Here's one side of it:


    Didn't buy this but might go back to get it:


    Definitely going to get this when I go back (sorry for the blur, I think I'm getting Parkinson's):


    "Sexual Life in Ancient Greece"


    Did buy this baseball book to read with oldest goddaughter, who loves watching baseball with me.


    This one should make Steelers fans cream a bit (from the Lombardi guide):

    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 15, 2014
  3. Buck

    Buck Well-Known Member

    Interesting, I've actually just recently did some meta-research on hipster/indie marketing.
    However, I still question the viability of the local bookstore as a business venture.
    I certainly wouldn't open one as a new business. There are much better options for people looking for small business opportunities.

    The numbers quoted represent very limited information - they do not really reveal anything.
    The number of independent bookstores increased 20 percent from 2009 to 2014 - so what?
    How much did the number decrease from 2004 to 2009? From 1999 to 2009? From 1989 to 2009?
    A small bump in an overwhelmingly steep decline is not necessarily significant.

    Of the new bookstores opened in the past five years, how many are showing a profit? How many of them carry a liquid revenue stream that justifies their start-up debt?
  4. jackfinarelli

    jackfinarelli Member

    If you are ever in Portland Oregon, be sure to check out Powell's Used, New and Out of Print Books.

    They have to have tens of thousands volumes there.

  5. 3_Octave_Fart

    3_Octave_Fart Well-Known Member

    Buck, it is simply not viable.
    Like newspapers circa 2003, second-hand booksellers are the dinosaurs to the meteor.
    I say this with no glee, it is the career to which I wanted to make my transition in middle age.
    Bookselling is the one business where location doesn't mean squat. That's a huge red flag.
  6. BillVirgin

    BillVirgin New Member

    Long time lurker, first time poster. Although I've spent my daily fishwrap career mainly in business, I've dabbled in sports coverage and known and watched enough of sportswriters to know it's serious and hard work.

    My plan for my first post was to mark the fifth anniversary of the demise of the print version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but procrastination got in the way of that one. But when I saw this topic I thought this would be a good place to dive in, as I believe I might have something to add on the subject.

    Last October, my wife and I bought a bookstore, one which had been predominately used books and to which we've added selected new books. She manages it on a day-to-day basis; as I have my own freelancing and publishing ventures, I help out on marketing and lining up authors for appearances.

    Some random thoughts on the subject:

    1. Nothing like doubling down on self-employment and relying on the sale of ink-on-dead-tree products.

    2. It is a tough business. Your competition is not just Amazon, or what's left of the big-box book retailers. It's virtually every other retailer. Go into Costco -- there are several tables worth of new books discounted to a price barely above what wholesalers charge us. Go into grocery stores -- more books. Same with discounters (Target, Fred Meyer in this region). Same with the drug-store chains. Half Price now offers new books. Even Staples has a bin of books.

    Couple that with the recession and the e-reader trend and it's no shock that in this region alone you could assemble a list of at least a dozen bookstores that have gone out of business in the last half decade or so.

    3. That said -- bookstores are surviving. In this area there are still several large independents -- Elliott Bay, Third Place, University -- and a slew of smaller stores, us included.

    Being a national retailer does carry some huge advantages, but those are just advantages, not guarantees. When we were researching the purchase of this store, my wife and I watched two documentaries on indie bookstores vs. big national retailers. In both cases the big national villain was ... Borders. Amazon, as I recalled, rated hardly a mention.

    4. From what we've learned in our admittedly limited experience, there's no way I would attempt to start a book store from scratch. One reason we decided to do this was that we were buying an existing business (with 12 years under the owner we bought it from and a history before that) with an established and loyal clientele. That owner managed to keep the store alive through several economic downturns and huge industry restructuring, no small accomplishment. We've added to that base through our own efforts, but we made darn sure that we introduced ourselves to that customer base, kept them apprised of the changes and continued certain programs like store credit for bringing in books.

    5. Location does matter. The store we bought was in a less than ideal location, in a nondescript strip mall on a busy street, not visible to half the cars going because of the way it was positioned in that mall. We made the decision to buy and move the store (another damnfool undertaking, because we grossly underestimated what it would take to move the store -- it turns out that books are heavy and bulky). We landed an excellent corner location in the business district of Burien, a smallish town to the west of Sea-Tac airport. The downtown is full of local, independent stores and restaurants, ideal for us. The local references will be lost on many, but I liken the feel of the area to what Ballard was like 25 years ago; it's not yet been ravaged by a development wave. The store has lots of foot traffic past it, of which the former location had none. Yet parking is still plentiful, free and close. We also have huge windows on two of the four sides, which we've taken pains not to cover up so as to avoid the claustrophobic feel of some used-book stores.

    Oh yeah, location matters another way. The regional wholesaler/distributor is right on the route between our home and the store. We can often have a customer's order in the store the next business day.

    6. We're pleased to report that the reading of physical books is not dead. It's especially not dead among younger readers; their parents are still bringing them in, starting as babies and toddlers, to buy books, and as they get older they're enthusiastically picking out books on their own. Even more encouraging is that book readership seems to be holding up in the teen cohort. Praise be to J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins and the like for getting and keeping kids interested in reading. The YA category continues to be very popular.

    As for adults and e-readers, if you believe the trade publications and industry reports, sales are leveling off, and it's already looking like a mature technology. Those inclined to adopt have done so -- or at least we can hope.

    7. So how does a book store survive in the hometown region of Amazon (and not surprisingly, Amazon is a frequently cursed name in the indie book retailing business; personally, I have a grudging respect for what they do and how they do it. They've never once screwed up an order of mine. I can only hope our customer service proves to be as accurate).

    Two factors come to mind, and they're somewhat related. One is an emphasis on local. By its nature Amazon can't highlight local authors. We can promote and sell their books, and match them up with local readers. In the short time we've had this store we've had more than two dozen authors in the store for signings and meet-and-greets. The very first, in fact was for a sports book, written by longtime local sports-radio host Mike Gastineau on the birth and success of Sounders FC (an interesting read from a business perspective, I'd add).

    The other is relentless marketing. Authors, the smart ones at least, know this. Mike had an excellent turnout because he worked very hard to let people know of his appearance at a store that had been open at its new location less than a month (and which few people had heard of). Same story with a locally based but nationally bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz, who also writes as Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle (all in various subsectors of the romance categories). She packed them in, because from the time we'd set the date and time she'd let people know through her website and other channels of her appearance. You have to do that. Unless you're a top-of-the-list author who can actually sell tickets for appearances, publishers aren't going to do much for you. If you're self-published, your also self-marketed.

    We've tried to learn from that. We have a website, a Facebook page and a monthly email newsletter, we've done press releases and newspaper and website listings for author appearances, we participated in a local coupon book and in the downtown merchants association, we donated books for back-to-school packages for new teachers in two districts, we opened on the Fourth of July since the parade went right by our door, we'll do something for Halloween, we have a monthly book discussion group and participate in the monthly downtown arts walk, and we spend a lot of every day figuring out new ways to get our name out there and new customers into our store.

    8. Price, interestingly, is not the crucial competitive point, which is good because there's no way we could keep up if that were the deciding factor, not when national retailers are using books as loss leaders. We do offer some discounts ($10 for every $100 spent, store credit for used books brought in that can be applied to used books, educator discounts) and those certainly help in recruiting and retaining customers. But that can't be the only value proposition.

    When we told friends of our plans, one noted that running a book store probably isn't as romantic as it sounds. It's not. Loving books and reading books is not a rational rationale for getting into the business. But it's not an impossible venture. For our sakes, it better not be.

    Hope that helps.

    Bill Virgin
  7. playthrough

    playthrough Moderator Staff Member

    Great thread. And great post, Bill.

    When I was in college at Indiana there was a bookstore downtown much like the one Xan posted about, smelly and packed and run by an old gent with a beard. Loved to go in there on my lunch hour and I'd usually buy some used sports or journalism book for $5-6. Twenty years later, I still have some of them while others have been unloaded at Half-Price Books. Our routine there a few times has been to sell a box of old crap, let our oldest read in the kids area and usually spend part of our proceeds on something for her.

    I'd be curious to hear how children's sections do vs. the rest of a bookstore. I'll confess that I don't buy adult books anymore (I'm a heavy library guy), but we buy kids books all the time for ours or for friends. At the B&N closest to our house the kids section is massive.
  8. 3_Octave_Fart

    3_Octave_Fart Well-Known Member

    Awesome post, Bill.
    Much more edifying than the price of gold.
  9. Frank_Ridgeway

    Frank_Ridgeway Well-Known Member

    I still love used book stores, but it was a lot more fun before computers eliminated your chances of acquiring anything valuable. You'd think every bookstore would know the real value of any book, but that wasn't true once upon a time. (Oddly, I still find the stray consignment shop that does not know the eBay value of certain clothing and shoes, but they don't stay in business long.)

    A high school friend bought a book at a garage sale and sold it for about a grand, but I don't wake up early enough for that. Mostly I read randomly from books I buy in thrift shops for a buck. Recently I found a first edition (with dust jacket in great shape) of Elmore Leonard's City Primeval, which isn't worth nearly as much as I'd hoped, but then my scores even in the good old days were relatively small. Still, if you once in a while find stuff that you can sell for 10 or 20 times what you paid, it's fun.

    I did buy the following book in a used book store in the 1990s. It pretty much sits there -- I think it's too risky to start a store -- but I did use it and other sources a couple years ago to make $35 for an article I wrote for Demand Studios under a pen name. I'm amused that someone is selling it on Amazon for 12 cents. I know I probably paid 20 times that!

  10. Buck

    Buck Well-Known Member

    I'm agreeing. I've always loved books and book stores, but I would never choose that if I opened my own small business. Even I spend more time reading on my iPad than I do traditional books now.
    I wouldn't have chosen to open a bookstore 20 years ago and I certainly wouldn't choose it now.
    I was just pointing out that the positive trend numbers used in the story are specious. They don't reveal anything meaningful. they're throw out their to look positive but there's no substance to them.

    Bill, good luck with the business. Buying an established store is probably better than opening one from scratch, but it still seems like an incredibly risky venture to me.
    You're about a year into it and seem positive. I hope it works out well for you.
  11. JR

    JR Well-Known Member

    I was co-owner of an independent bookstore up here from 1970-1984 when my partner and I sold it to an employee who sold it about five years ago to the third owner. It's still alive and well and flourishing nicely.

    The store has always been considered one of the top ten indies in North America.

    Here's a shot of part of the children's section on the second floor---store has three floors


    We were great at handselling, had service second to none and were always aggressive marketers. People walking in the store only represented a portion of our sales. We sold to libraries, corporatons, schools, had a solid direct mail programme and ongoing author events including "Book & Author Breakfasts" which the Ladies Who Lunch attended loyally every year.

    After I left bookselling I went to publishing which I left in 2004.

    BTW, this was not a used book store--strictly new and solid backlist
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 15, 2014
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