The Small Town Bookstore Path

A guest post by
P. J. Grath, Dog Ears Books, Northport, Michigan

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Christopher Milne (son of A. A. Milne) and his wife decided after World War II to leave London and open a bookstore elsewhere. In his autobiography, The Path Through the Trees (1979), Milne muses, “I doubt if any modern ‘feasibility study’ could have offered us a town in which both bookselling and living have been such a pleasure for so many years.” Sixteen years after opening my first bookshop in little Northport, Michigan, my feelings are very much in line with Milne’s.

There are various ways to finance the start-up of an independent bookstore. My husband and I started on the cheap and hauled ourselves up by the boostraps gradually, year by year, but we also learned that, for us, bigger is not always better.

Location is crucial, but much as shutter speed and aperture must be brought into balance for a good photograph, a bookseller needs to find the equilibrium between traffic and rent. Every bookseller’s dream ideal would be low rent and high traffic. (Right!) How much rent is feasible for your business? If high rent isn’t paying off in sales dollars, you can’t afford it. What other businesses are flourishing near yours, and kind of sales do they generate? If your typical customer is spending $15 while your next-door neighbor is taking in $50 or more every time the cash register rings, the other shopkeeper can afford higher rent. This difference can be partially offset by doing all the work yourself (or at least keeping it in the family), but whether or not that closes the gap will depend on how wide the gap is. If, on the other hand, you gravitate conservatively toward the lower-rent end of the scale, what can you do to increase traffic, improving the equation in your favor?

bookcaseAfter moving from our start-up village to a nearby larger town and spending a couple years as urban booksellers, we moved back to the small village with no regrets. Overall traffic would not dictate such a decision. On the other hand, the rent is lower here; because the town is so small, it’s hard for any business to be overlooked; ours is the only bookstore in town; and, like the Milnes, we have joined business and life. Key to continued survival was the recognition that business here will always be seasonal. Tourists come in the summer, while even locals, if they can, leave for the winter. Now, having tried both large town and village, summer-only and year-round, we’re operating on a nine-month year, cutting our losses by closing February through April.

Four years ago this village was considered down for the count, but negative attention galvanized community spirit. Now there are building renovations and new businesses spring up all over town, and it’s exciting to be part of it, to feel we have made a place for ourselves in the history of this small place. And we’re still here!

May 31, 2009

Pamela Grath
Dog Ears Books
106 Waukazoo Street
P.O. Box 272
Northport, MI  49670

(231) 386-7209

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  • I met your husband,David Grath at the Tarpon Springs Art Festival in Florida this weekend. He showed great interest in a painting I had at the show called “The Gathering.” I will be showing it again in Tampa at another show April 10th and 11th. I din’t know if you guys are here then, but I really got a lot of encouraging inspirations from David. I would love for him to finish the journey of this piece by injoying ut in your Home or Store.

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