Can We Turn a Bookstore Downsize into an Upgrade?

In Brisbane, Australia, there is a 52-year-old independent, family-owned store named the American Bookstore. Despite that this store has seen over half-a-century of excellent trading and strong customer base, the American Bookstore (ABS) has found themselves needing to relocate due to exorbitant rent in the CBD and the presently ‘border-nary’ book trade.

ABS will be moving from a store with street frontage and large display windows to a smaller location, down-stairs, in an alley. A terrifying thought, given that it is generally expressed that a bookstore must have excellent street frontage, preferably corner and windows. However, this store is combating the shrinking book industry by making the most of what they have been given, in order to give the store a new angle to fight against Internet book-buyers. They are attempting to make the ‘downsize,’ an upgrade.

It does not take long for a bookseller to compile a long list of the things which Internet bookstores lack in comparison to an independent brick and mortar. In order to de-downsize (upgrade), one must combat each of these with vivacity. What is a huge plus is that moving stores is the perfect occasion for the ABS to do this with a new edge.

Character: Lacking windows and street access is a major problem for any store. However, there is a new opportunity to play on the ‘hidden’ aspect of the store in order to promote word of mouth advertising. One thing you do not want people to say is, “Oh, the American Book Store used to be much bigger and lighter, now they’re in a basement and are hard to find.” You want to hear “The American Book Store has moved, but you should find the store next time you are in the city, it is so lovely in there. I want to sit there for hours.”
How do you make people want to sit in there for hours? When the store has character. Yes, it may be hard to find but once you’re there, amidst the books and calming atmosphere you will not forget where it is.
Internet bookstores, no matter how they try, will not have the physical smell, feel or look of brick and mortar store. This leaves the bookseller with huge room to make the new store a place people love to visit, stay for a while and, importantly, return to.
Because ABS’s new store will not have the open windows and street frontage, they have utilized their new walkway and stairs for art. This art-filled is visible from the street and proves as an interest point to passer-bys.
The interior of the new store is where you establish the aesthetic character of the store. A smaller store, especially in a basement, gives way to quirky and ‘vintage’ feeling shelves and furniture. This is a positive because lovely tables and bookshelves can be purchased second hand quite cheaply and varnished or painted to match. Art by local artists, with a book theme, hung around the store captures interest of customers and adds to the cozy interior. Soft, calming music and lighting encourages the sense of serenity for a customer.

Browsing: Once upon a time, certain booksellers would discourage people sitting around, reading the merchandise, “this is not a library!” was a common phrase. Now, with the massive boom of Internet bookselling, browsing should be stressed as a huge selling point of brick and mortar stores. It is possible the customer will read the book, get the information and go and buy it from Amazon but more likely the customer will purchase it on the spot. Especially if they feel comfortable in the store and feel their customer experience has been excellent. Chairs are a huge point of interest, they can assist in cementing a store’s character and décor. Vintage armchairs are a fantastic way to add pizzazz to a store in an older building.

Interesting display: In the technology focused world the book buying community may seem agitated and numb to high-impact displays and merchandising. A bookstore can combat this cheaply and effectively by using creativity, table displays are one of the best ways to capture attention from a customer.
Around the entry, service desk and any reading or sitting areas, positioning some tables with themed books, displayed simply, will attract attention easily. Lighting can be used to draw attention to particular items as well, positioning vintage lamps around a display is an eye catching way to show-off some attractive photography or art books.

Community and Customer Service: Most importantly, creating a unique experience in your store for your customer will keep people coming back, and probably bringing their friends. Creating an individual community program, such as supporting schools or charities, will foster good will amongst staff and community. Having regular staff training will ensure that the customer will have informed and energetic service.

In order for an independent bookstore to survive through this time of (general) hardship, the owners and staff must work to ensure they are providing what the competition does not. Downsizing business does not mean that one must cut corners on the business, instead it can create an opportunity to improve what you already have.

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  • If the rent hike is extraordinarily high – making it financially impossible to stay at the location and succeed in business – I would suggest your best option is to open at the new location immediately and operate at both locations until the last possible moment. That way you will be able to send most of your customers to your new location while building a new customer base.
    Try to get newspaper coverage and blame the economy (not the landlord) – most newspapers exist to print bad news.

    You might see if you can pay your existing neighbors to post signs in their windows about where you have moved – for at least six months. Many sporadic customers will just assume you have gone out of business.

    A books store can be a sanctuary for your customers but don’t let it be that for you.
    I still think a the only tricks needed to operate a successful bookstore is having the guts to continuously buy books and the work ethic to constantly upgrade your inventory.
    If you don’t – astute customers will recognize you are just another novice who will soon be out of business and will not waste much more of their time visiting your store.

    But if you can manage it – stay at your present location where it won’t take several years to rebuild your business.
    Most times high rent is an indication you are in a prime location where chances to attract new customers are plentiful.
    Moving away from your present customers is almost never a smart move.

    • Great points, George. I agree with you. However, I am not the owner of the store and I had to work with what I had in this situation. I don’t have a lot of say as far as rent is concerned.

      I wrote this with as much in mind for staff members, such as myself, who could take a move and make the most of it, as for owners who find themselves trapped.

      The decision to move was not, in my opinion, a good one. However, I love the store I work at and I want to see it do the best it can. One thing I think is a major downfall of bookstores at the moment, as you said, is the lack of stamina in bad times.

      As far as the news is concerned, I am thankful that the papers and TV news I contacted were helpful and hopeful. The stories had positive coverage and I was able to find journalists with a passion for the book and publishing industry, which is lucky.

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  • “in order to give the store a new angle to fight against Internet book-buyers”

    But, they also sell online! So it would be a bad idea to fight against what also brings them sales.

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