An Uncertain Future in the Used Book Business

An update on Christina Ambrosia’s bookstore Odyssey

Ambrosia’s Books and More

Bad Summer at the Bookstore

This summer, though my first as a bookstore owner, was horrible.  I’ve been agonizing over closing the doors completely or waiting out my lease.  In reality, I’ll wait out the lease, but I dream of being home and writing more.  The work involved in a used bookstore is far more than I ever dreamed.

I do love being here, I love being surrounded by the books, and seeing that it’s been me and them for most of the summer, we’ve become friends.  Seriously, even though sales have been slow(25% drop in sales for August alone) I’ve still been very busy.  Customers are still exchanging books and we’ve had a trickle of new customers. It’s time for changes.

I decided I’m not selling new books except children’s books, any longer.  I will order for a customer if they request something with 50% down, but I can no longer spec buy.  I still have stock from when I opened the doors, deeply discounted, they still aren’t moving.  Having new books here isn’t a reason for customers to come here.  They go to the grocery store every week and pick up a brand new paperback for 20% off.  I can’t compete with that.

I have also changed my hours.  I read a blog on here a while back regarding hours and closing on Sundays.  The authors name eludes me [Shane Gottwals] but I understand the article more now than I did when I initially read it.    I thought, be here as often as possible so you’re here for the customer.  I was spending every possible minute at this store after working my 30 hour a week job.  Missing evening dinners with my family; dinners which I prepared in the morning before going to work and I’d get the cold leftovers. I would sit here three evenings in a row and not one customer would walk through the door. We are still open six days, but only three evenings.  I’m open from 9am -1pm on Sundays giving me time to make my son’s football games.  I took my youngest daughter out of daycare two days a week and keep her with me here at the store.  It’s difficult at times but the time we spend together is worth it.  We’re still getting a schedule of things to do around customer visits and cleaning up the children’s section.

I’m also trying to make things more interesting.  I have events scheduled for the next two months.  October we’re doing a Halloween story hour with flashlights and a costume competition.  In November we’re doing a book signing/talk right before Veterans Day.  The local paper is doing an article on the event and hopefully we’ll pick up a little after that.  Our book club is still going well.  I still have customers coming in telling me they are so happy we are in town.  Every time someone says that it gives me hope to hang in there and enjoy every day.

September was better than August.  October, though I started it with the flu, is already ahead of August and September at the end of the first week.  I am realizing first hand what an up and down business this is.  I’m just hoping for more ups than downs in the coming months!

5 thoughts on “An Uncertain Future in the Used Book Business”

  1. Maybe you have already done this, but try asking your customers what they would like to see at your bookstore. I’m in my 27 year in law enforcment in Florida and will be retiring in the next 2 to 3 years. I have always been interested in books and have started gathering information about openning a bookstore. From what i have gathered so far its no easy endevor!!! Hang in there.

  2. The advantage of running your own shop is your ability to keep aware of the pulse of your business. If one customer says positive things you can bet there are many others who appreciate your efforts but are keeping quiet about it. I’m sure there are very few booksellers who didn’t suffer through the early days when only 1-3 customers a day wandered into our shops.

    This business, like most businesses, takes a long time to build. Some of the reasons are – only 10% of the population reads and 90% of those readers will not go into a “used” bookstore for many reasons – limited inventory, inconvenient locations, a history burdened by images of dark unkempt premises, operators who would rather read than cultivate customer relations or organize inventory, etc.
    Each of these problems are massive and take years to overcome but if you are already being appreciated you have a good chance to do it.

    All us outsiders can do at this time is offer support and encouragement. This business is often a rollercoaster and seldom predictable even after 21 years in business – the only thing easily predictable is – if you really work at this business and do manage to survive – your contributions to your community will be massive.

    We slammed into a wall early this week when I was forced to do some of the dogwork which sustains this business. I realized our incoming inventory was bursting our display shelves at the seams and we had run out of room to keep our overflow stock organized enough to keep it functional.

    So … we will be opening a fifth store in Calgary early in 2010 and finalizing the steps necessary to make our computers competent to instantaneously choose over 50% of our inventory.

    But … I remember well the sweetness of the beginnings of this wonderful business … and believe the best is yet to come.


  3. If you have not been logging the exact time of day sales occur, start doing so now. This will allow you to keep better track of what hours are actually worth you being there. If you have two months where nobody comes in after 6 and you’re there ’til 7, just eliminating that hour may be the best choice. Why pay to have the lights on and be away from your family if you make $.98 an hour? Or conversely, when you have a bunch of sales after you’re officially closed for the day.

    But if you don’t keep precise records, you won’t actually know when you should move around hours. Do so now and you may be able to adjust your schedule to something that is easier to deal with but brings in the same cash flow.

  4. A lot of what you said resonated with me – being in a small country town and off the beaten track we have days where not one customer will walk in. Sometimes I sell a magazine for $1 and nothing more. It does get you down. You wonder what you are missing/doing wrong. But then, when a season is good, we have days where we make constant sales. This is my fifth summer ahead of us, and I still can’t identify what will be a good day and what won’t. When the sun comes out and no one comes in, I assume they’re all at the beach. When the rain comes out and no one comes in, I assume they’re all at home. Then sometimes days are busy regardless of sun, rain, cloud, heat, locusts … And having children compounds the difficulties, because we’re juggling so much and time is so precious. My mantra is “When the kids are in school”… The customers’ mantra appears to be “But you’re never open” (it’s not true at all, we’re open 10-2 Tues, Thurs, 1-5 Fri, 12-4 Sat/Sun – just not at the moments they came by.) I have added story telling for kids to bolster the interest here, and am thinking about a Blarney Book group… And would also like to host “author events”. Have you made the decision to shut doors when the lease is up, or are you prepared to continue on?

  5. I have the same experience, not only in the summer. I opened our store last Summer and I still have days with no soul comming in. I am in small city and my store location is at a place where there are no other retail businesses. Also my store opening hours are short, from 11:00am to 3:30 pm monday-saturday. I can not open it longer because we have three little kids.
    There are some good days. There were only a few days when the sales exceeded $100. But I am still hoping.
    I signed a three-year lease. I heard that there is a three year rule that the business will be better after three years.
    I decided to quit my job next year to focus on the business and my other interest.

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