How to Run a Bookstore in 2017
Some Top of My Head Tips…
On ThePassiveVoice.com (a fantastic resource for all us indie writers) bookstores get slammed a bunch. I finally got sort of tired of the slamming of bookstores in general and decided to make a point that it is the bad management of bookstores that kills them, not bookstores in general.
There was even a comment that bookstores are like a boat, a place to throw money. Well, if you run them wrong for 2017, yes, that is correct. If you run them correctly, with an open mind, no.
So I got asked by two people in email what it took to run a modern bookstore successfully. Figured I would talk about that now, off the top of my head, as I sit here waiting for the sun to come up so it can be hidden by the moon.
WHAT KILLS A BOOKSTORE?
Let me start on the negative first. If you rent a place, put books on the wall, open the door, and sit back and read, expecting money to just come to you through the door, you are doomed. The profit margin on books of all types, new or used. isn’t enough to cover rent, utilities, and employee costs.
That thinking is the old 1970s thinking of bookstores and that thinking is why so many stores go down. Heck, when I started my bookstore in 1977, I didn’t even think that way.
You may have heard here that WMG Publishing Inc. bought a failing bookstore. Why would we do that? Well, to start off with, when Sheldon McArthur started and ran the bookstore, he did it right and made great money. He then sold it to his manager who shut down much of what he was doing and went to the 1970s model. She was out of business in 16 months. Not kidding.
So Sheldon got the store back and we bought it from him before he could liquidate it and he is going to help us two days a week bring the store back to life.
WHAT DOES A MODERN BOOKSTORE HAVE TO DO TO SURVIVE?
1… Get your head out of a dark place on your backside and offer other things for sale in your store. If you only offer nothing but books, you cripple yourself. You can still make it, but you don’t have a smoothing cash-flow influence.
This is nothing new for bookstores, actually. The store we bought is called North by Northwest Books and Antiques. The antiques take up about a quarter of our floor space, the books the rest.
Billy, WMG Publishing’s head of sales and I are both pickers of books and antiques. And Sheldon will pick for us as well, both in books and antiques. We are perfectly poised in getting more inventory easily.
2… You must keep your inventory moving in some fashion or another, have new and fresh things. Our cycle here is seasonal. We have so many return customers that stop by once per year. The store needs to look fresh with new stuff when they come in.
3… You must have a clean, airy, welcoming place for people to come in. First impressions are everything and that was the first thing we changed this week. It is a welcoming store now.
4… You must have a sense of what sells. We will be going to new indie paperbacks at some point in the near future, but first off, the largest genre on the planet is romance and the owner who ran the store into the ground didn’t like romance, so they were hidden. Those are coming up and out into the light. (grin)
5… You must cater to all price points. We have five hundred dollar signed books and one dollar books. And everything in between. We will be building the new-book sections considerably, ordering without returns. We will special order for customers, of course, but we don’t expect much of that, to be honest. Amazon wins that battle.
6… You must be willing to work with local authors and other bookstores and general stores in your area. We are lucky here, we have three major bookstores in our town and Bob Portwood owns two and we own the other and we are friends, so we will be working on different ads and events. We also have a ton of authors coming through that we hope to work with as we get set up. (Not yet, don’t ask, we are not ready yet. (grin))
7… You must be willing to sell worldwide. On all the different platforms. Critical.
I mentioned in my comment on ThePassiveVoice that we were getting five or six major cash streams by buying the store. Two people asked about what I meant with that.
For Books, new and used…
1… Walk in traffic. This is the one cash stream that failing bookstores depend on. Thus, they fail. For us it will be part of the streams, but only one part, and not the biggest part except in the summer, maybe.
2… We sell on eBay and one of our stores is a corner store on eBay. No matter your personal opinions about eBay, and your complaint about high costs, they are the main game in town and we do wonderfully with them. This will be our fourth major eBay store selling books, both new and used. We ship all over the world every day.
Note: I find it interesting that most indie authors don’t sell their own signed books on eBay. A completely different audience than other places.
3… We will sell on Amazon as a dealer. (Not the author stuff, but as a dealer. We have the author stuff through WMG Publishing side of things.) Billy ran a bookstore for five years and every book he had in inventory was also on Amazon. We won’t get that far, but it will work for many of our books.
4… We will sell on ABE books and a couple other rare and used book sites. And yes, we will put up indie author books on ABE as well. It takes a bookstore to get into ABE and guess what we just bought? (grin)
5… We will sell and trade with other bookstores around the nation. Too long to explain here. But it is a cash stream.
For Antiques and Misc…
6… Walk in traffic, of course, for the antiques. We have some stunningly expensive historical medical stuff that Sheldon collected and still loves to collect and sell. We sold just two pieces of medical antique stuff on Wednesday for six hundred dollars.
7… eBay for the antiques we can ship safely.
8… Amazon for some items that fit certain elements. This won’t be much to start, but when we buy estates and collections, this gets to be a great market.
As far as future stuff…
Since we own two other stores called Pop Culture Collectables, we will be moving some small displays of things into the bookstore to give a connection to our three stories. For example, in the bookstore we will have some bins of $1.00 comics. With a sign saying if you want more comics, visit either one of our other stores.
We have some frighteningly expensive cookie jars, McCoys and other top names, in both of our other stores. Some of them will fit wonderfully in the bookstore up on top of shelves and such. Same with art. And old ads, which we are starting to sell more of.
And wow do we have a ton of old digest magazines. Those will fit perfectly in a bookstore and we sell them regularly out of our other store in the bookstore section.
And so on.
If you are going to think about starting a bookstore, you need to understand that you will need to sell more than books, that you will need to sell around the world, and that you will need to be open minded.
If you have a strength beyond books, think of how you could use and sell that in your store as well.
You must also keep your expenses low, your store clean, your staff friendly and knowledgeable.
You must keep your ordering under control and find product cheaply and be willing to move it cheaply if it doesn’t sell.
You know, all basic business stuff.
But it is stunning how many bookstore owners open up the door, slap books on the wall, and then just sit there hoping people will suddenly stop using Amazon. Not going to happen. So if you can’t fight Amazon, sell on Amazon.
SEPTEMBER ONLINE WORKSHOPS…
All have openings at the moment. Information at
Any questions at all, feel free to write me. And if you are confused as to which workshop to take first, we have a full curriculum posted on its own page. I will be updating the curriculum in September adding in the new workshops.
Class #25… Sept 5th … Depth #3: Research
Class #26… Sept 5th … Writing into the Dark
Class #27… Sept 5th … Business
Class #28… Sept 5th … Endings
Class #29… Sept 5th … Writing Fiction Sales Copy
Class #30… Sept 5th … Writing and Selling Short Stories
Class #31… Sept 6th … Depth in Writing
Class #32… Sept 6th … Advanced Character and Dialog
Class #33… Sept 6th … Cliffhangers
Class #34… Sept 6th … Pacing Your Novel
Class #35… Sept 6th … How to Edit Your Own Work
Class #36… Sept 6th … Writing Fantasy
Writing into the Dark is a new workshop starting in September.
THE UNIVERSE BETWEEN BUNDLE
I curated this bundle and I had great fun with it.
I loved living in that middle ground. All my writing falls in the middle ground between two places. Every story. Some more obviously than others, but without a doubt, every story or novel that I write, or every book or magazine I edit, falls in the “between” place.
This bundle not only helps a fantastic charity with Ablegamers.com, but it has some stunning novels by some great writers.
And it has an entire volume of Fiction River. A lot of short stories in there as well.
Give this one a look, folks. I think you will be very happy you did.
You can support this ongoing blog at Patreon on a monthly basis. Not per post. Just click on the Patreon image. Thanks for your support.
Great tips, Dean, and they extend so far beyond owning a bookstore. Thank you.
Really intriguing post, Dean! I didn’t realize it, but I had that old image of a book store. You fill it with books, being clever with categories and selection, and sell them to people who come in. If you have some walnut paneling on the walls, all the better! Lol!
A lady in my hometown just expanded her used bookstore. She also sells used CDs and other kinds of media. She’s putting in a “books by the pound” section for books that have creases and otherwise minor damage. I totally am shopping there next time I visit. I hope I get to visit your store sometime. Signed books by the author! :raises eyebrows:
Don’t you sell via your own website as well? Pretty easy to set up a Shopify page.
Oops, knew I was forgetting something. That is a Yup! We will sell on our own web site. Thanks, Thomas.
I just spent the entire day in the bookstore today because of the eclipse. I had a blast.
Really informative and interesting! Thanks for the clear explanation.
It makes me happy that there is a way for brick-and-mortar bookstores to flourish in this modern age. Especially because I love creating paperbacks. The more places that sell them successfully, the better!
Really interested to see how all the synergies of owning collectable stores, bookstores, and being a publisher play out. A fruitful intersection, I think.
I laughed when I read about the last manager and romance. Years ago, I tried to sell some “Years Best Of” short story collections of erotica. None of the resale bookstores would take them. They all said those books didn’t sell. I remember standing there with my shoebox of books, thinking: ‘Really. Sex doesn’t sell.’
I asked at two of the larger bookstores if they even had a section for that genre, because you can’t sell what you don’t have. They both did. At one, the single shelf was at the back of the store, very top shelf, impossible to reach without a footstool, and unmarked with any signage. At the other store, the erotica section was squashed between two bookshelves spaced so closely together that you had to be both thin and very determined to even touch the spines, much less pull one out. Mystery solved.
Both were large, go-to bookstores with long-standing reps. I can only guess that they had an erotica section at all out of some ethical subscription to non-censorship, but personal/psychological discomfort with the subgenre. The placement seemed very Freudian to me.
Which reminds me of another combination bookstore in town called Little Sister’s. Some might recognize the name from their long-standing battle with Canada Customs over importing books. They sell saucy books and sex toys. Their store is light and airy, and the staff are cheerful. So there is a very wide range of what you can do with a store, as long as there is some kind of connection.
Catching up on reading. It’s amazing how many bookstores ignore romance. Our B Dalton (back in the day) had an assistant manager who loved romance. We pulled in more foot traffic from our romance readers than anything else. In the latter days of Dalton, we were one of the last stores standing. Partly it was our lease at the mall but a huge part of the company not wanting to cut our lease short had to do with the profitability–which came from our romance readers.
My first bookstore had an entire two rooms of romance. It was my best selling stuff. Now I buy a bookstore where the original owner (Shelly) loves mysteries and all genre and the woman he sold it to for a short time hated romance. So now we are in a building process. We have lots of sf and lots of mystery. Got to find romance. Not as easy as you would think.
J. D. Brink
Dean, you mention Ebay and being surprised more writers don’t sell there.
I actually tried it a couple times and never got any bites. (Though, admittedly, I’ve got a good number more titles now. And, come to think of it, I need to off load some stuff before we move next year…)
My question, though, is about international shipping costs. Aren’t they, like… MURDER? You say ship around the world, and certainly that cost should be left up to the person paying, but it seems to me the shipping costs as much or more than the book itself. Or is that not the case?
Buyer pays the shipping and we hold it right to the amount it actually is. eBay has an international warehouse here in the states that everything goes to and they take over the shipping from there. Just part of doing business.