Bookshops: Scoping Out the Competition

In our town, there are a few places to get books. Wal-Mart and Safeway have a section of new books. The dollar stores sometimes have a few. The rummage shop has some used books. A classy gift shop has an estate collection it is selling at $2.00 a book as part of a charity that supports cancer patients who must go out of town for treatments. There is a bookcase of $2.00 books at the coffee shop, mostly romances. The library has two or three carts at the library entrance selling Friends of the Library books, and the Friends also have two sales a year. One can get books at garage sales and auctions.

We are 100 miles away from a big box book store of any kind. I don’t think there is a new or used book store within 50 miles in any direction. However, most of the population in that area are cows, who don’t read much. Also, we have not had a new book store in town for several years. In the 35 years I have lived here, we have had eight different stores selling new books. Most of these stores have been located on the main block, downtown, in a good corner location. Yet none of these shops has lasted more than three or four years, except one, which managed a seven year run. One of them was oriented towards Christian books, and even a connection with the Man Upstairs didn’t save it. The truth of the matter is, we have an excellent and well used public library and a depressed economy.

So we speculated that a used book store would do better than a new book store. We would offer a few new items and some gift baskets at the holiday, work on the on-line business when no customers were in the store, and hope that the sales in the store would pay the rent. We also wanted to sell books on commission thereby helping local people make an extra buck or two. Believe me, everybody around here needs it.

In August we drove 70 miles to the west to investigate a used book store we heard had just started. When we got there, on a nice sunny Tuesday, we discovered they were closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, so we could only peer in the windows and sadly note they had three times our space and better shelves. In many other respects they were eerily just like we had planned for our store. The daily hours were the same, the prices were the same and the concept similar. The man in the antique store next door sold higher end books along one wall, and he chatted with us about another bookstore starting up 10 miles to the west of him (80 miles from us).

There are also plans to have a used book store 40 miles to the north of us when their downtown renovation is done. If it gets finished, that’s five used book stores starting in our part of the state in a two year period. Fortunately for us, none of the others are in our town.

On the way home, we discussed how we wanted to be different from other book stores, if there would be more competition at auctions with all these stores starting, and what cooperative efforts could be made among the book stores along the Arkansas Valley corridor to jointly advertize. We also let the conversation stray to another subject we had been discussing. We had been investigating what other little extra items we could sell in the store to prop up the bottom line. T. wants stationery and pens. He is also looking into computer related accessories. Susan and I want to include vintage items or even a few antiques. We used to be junque dealers at the flea market up in Denver and still have a few bins of assorted glassware and things in the shed. Oh, and then there’s the glow-sticks. I want to sell glow-sticks. I like glow-sticks.

Does anyone have any suggestions on what to pick up or avoid in the non-book department? Ideas about what will appeal to a rural population short on entertainment venues? Titles of really wonderful books you would suggest we buy new to encourage folks to give as gifts?

18 thoughts on “Bookshops: Scoping Out the Competition”

  1. I’d look at carrying previously-watched movies and played-more-than-once video games. Whatever you decide, though, I’d stick with only one or two non-book categories — book stores that have more than that tend to lose the plot.

    • I don’t think we have room for movies or video games, not to mention my vast lack of knowledge about them. We do have an estate of records to help move on, though. Something to think about. We have, however, discovered that VHS is not only dead, it’s sincerely dead.

      • Indeed, VHS has joined the choir invisible; its pushing up the daisies and has ceased to be. And not having the room for or knowledge of a product is a good reason not to carry it.

        The best way to come up with entertainment ideas (and, often, to decide what you offer book-wise), is to ask your community what they’d like to see at your store. You can do this informally by striking up conversations with neighbours, writing up a survey (around 5 questions) or doing both.

        We can all offer our opinions as to what you should sell, but in the end, it’s your customers who will determine that.

      • Brian is right Caro — seriously consider the movies (DVD’s not VHS) which you will acquire by paying the ridiculously low amount of .25 to .50 cents each. If you treat your store as a family entertainment destination for your locals, you will increase your business immensely. Glowsticks and antiques do not actually mesh with a theme of offering entertainment — think a used Border’s or B & N. And if you are the only thing in your small town, you will be flocked to. Our store in a small town, (Owosso, MI) does great, because competition for books, music, and video sales is extremely low. Yes, we do music CD’s also — that market is not dead, despite reports to the contrary. You do need to know what to take in that instance, but it can be learned fairly easily. Take every DVD/Blu-Ray you see: they buy them all, pretty much.

        The point is, these items take up relatively small amounts of floor space compared to larger items, like antiques. Your books are going to eat up most of the room, just give a corner to the rest. They will shore up your bottom line like you can’t believe once you have a decent selection!

  2. You need to have bookmarks and you could consider giftcards. If you could get ones that are different and stand out then it’d help.

    You could also offer to write messages on them for your online sales.

  3. Two questions: What are your town’s demographics in terms of age? Is there anything that brings outsiders to or through your town? I ask these questions because there is no way I have ever been able to compete with cheaper books from the many sources you cite. Travelers, on the other hand, love my store. Without them I would not have survived. This is why (along with heat bills) that I have to close January-March, because that is the season when tourists, daytrippers and second homeowners are all elsewhere.

    I have notecards, postcards, puzzles, playing cards and refrigerator magnets, all themed to our area (northern Michigan) and very attractive, but they are a very small sideline. For a couple years I had reading glasses, very fun, colorful ones, which a friend who repped the line told me would “pay the rent.” What I find is that most people are going to spend a certain amount of money, and if they buy one thing they’ll decide not to buy another. This is another reason–note this well!–not to covet more floor space! If you have double the floor space, you increase your overhead, but you do NOT double your sales! You’re giving people more choices, but they will NOT be spending double the money. Seller, beware!

  4. Have you considered putting a small coffee bar in your store? The profit on used books is minimal; however, as Starbucks knows, the markup on coffee is like a license to print money! Plus, if someone sits down for a coffee they might be compelled to buy a book to enjoy along with it and linger longer in the store until something catches their eye.

    Art is another good book companion. Do you know any local artists looking for wall space to hang paintings? You can collect a small commission from the artist and acquire some nice art to decorate your store without buying pieces yourself.

    I like bookmarks, pens, fancy notebooks and that sort of thing. I would try to keep it book-related as much as possible so as not to lose your focus.

  5. Blend your stock:
    -Some rare books should be there. If they don’t sell right away locally then internet sell them. I’m sure you’ll have parallel selling streams anyway.
    -Stock classics.
    -Stock cheap paperback copies of popular novels.
    -Blend the subject areas, Sci-fi, chick lit, young adult…
    -Used vinyl, Dvd’s, Cd’s and books on tape would be good to have around.
    -Books on local history, both used and from newer authors would be smart to keep in stock.
    -Stage events to boost your profile.
    -If you can afford it be a bookstore that can buy books as well. It could unlock hidden gems in your area.

  6. Caro, if you’d like more extensive, not-expensive help, I do bookstore consulting. I do all the leg work, meshing the owner’s vision with the needs and wants of the community they serve. Just putting that out there.

  7. Oddly enough our town has a video/DVD place and paintball store. They don’t usually display the paintballs, just ask for them at the counter. But there’s nowhere else in area that sells them either, so works for them.

    It sounds like you could go same route with the glowsticks, depending on what sort you carry. Very cheap ones that kids can afford with allowance money may provide a steady trickle if displayed on counter, but more intense ones that can be used for actual illumination or for spinning may be appealing to people that will pay more and will be happy to have some place they can come grab some instead of driving a hundred miles or having to order over the internet.

    If you’re near a venue with live music or a dance club, and plan to be open in evening anyway, they may provide a nice little boost from people that otherwise would not buy books.

    For those totally baffled by the whole thing, here’s a video of people spinning and juggling glowsticks to make patterns:

    The ones used in the video are a different sort than most people are probably used to seeing, since they have a much more intense glow than the usual sort sold to kids.

  8. I did forget to add that vinyl records are a definite bonus, IF you can find the space. They always take up a lot of room, in my opinion, but if you have a market for them they are a nice sideline. We used to have hundreds at our small town location and had them removed for more books and comics. Of course now I have 3-5 requests a week for vinyl. That’s not very much, but the right buyer can make your day.

    And I do wish we had done the local artists artwork on the walls! That seems like a no-brainer, especially if you can sell the art and get a commission. We just have posters up, which we have sold in the past. So, yeah,(new) posters are a possibility too. I like the art idea better, though.

  9. Dittos to what PJ says “You’re giving people more choices, but they will NOT be spending double the money. Seller, beware!” –

    That may not always be true but I’d be willing to bet it is most often. Brian’s idea of the survey is a good one but of course people might say one thing and then never darken your door.

    One thing I would suggest is inexpensive reading glasses. The kind you can sell for under 3-4 dollars a pair. They normally come in different color packages with numbered strengths. An assortment of strengths in a cigar box on the counter would not take up much room or there are racks for them. Counter racks or standing racks.

    A while back I reached the age where my vision is not what it once was and I’ve found that I buy an expensive pair I break and loose them the same as I do the cheap ones.

    I’d say if you ever go with any DVD’s try to stick with an assortment of classic movies. Mom and Pop dollar store around the corner from me has had the same batch of junk DVD’s (Not even ‘B’ movies) for over a year. Cary Grant, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart ones go but some unknown titles without stars just don’t move.

    If you went with a coffee bar you have to consider the health department might be causing you more cost than it might be worth.

    Julies idea of local artist might work if you have wall space not covered by bookshelves but be careful about putting prices on them. I knew of an antique store that lost more than a couple paintings because thieves saw the prices and probably would not have taken them otherwise.

    Good suggestion from all. This website rocks!

  10. The history of book shops in your area has to be seriously considered – and also the fact that books stores are failing all over North America.
    Why are your stores failing? #1 has to be because there is not a sufficient customer base to support them – if the town and surrounding area has less than 25,000 people then your chance of success is very limited – unless tourists flock to your area by the thousands for at least 3-4 months a year.
    The #2 reason is because the previous shops were opened and operated by book lovers unaware that “business” has its own universal requirements. Accounting, housekeeping, advertising and promotion, etc. and the work never stops so you will never catch up.
    I think P.J. Grath covered it well but, to me, there is little point in going into the book business if you tiptoe around for several years with very few books.
    #3 – As with any retailing operation – always being open to buying new merchandise and then continuously culling your inventory – gives potential customers a reason for returning to your shop. The moment you stop buying is the moment you are slip sliding out of business.
    #4 – Getting distracted by sidelines and novelties will only harm your ability to be a good books store.
    #5 – Coffee? – NO! Be a book store serving the needs of your special community – but one that is a gathering place for people who buy books – not a place for idle chit chat and time wasters.

    The book business can be a great business if you operating it like one – and don’t need a lot of income.
    It took me 7 1/2 years before I started taking a regular income out of my stores – but I had a well defined plan – read “Positioning” by Reis & Trout before you start setting up.

    Good luck.

  11. Do yourself a favor and forget about opening a bookstore. I don’t even know what a glow stick is but you are either a bookseller, dealing with knowledgeable readers or a flea market merchant that happens to sell a few books. We have owned 5 bookstores and all of them had significant competition. What did we do? We did a better job then they did and after a year or two most closed up.

    Any decent start-up store will have at least 10,000 books on the shelf so maybe you ought to think about that instead of selling glow sticks.

    • Perhaps doing a better job WAS the secret to your success. It certainly couldn’t have been your charming personality.

      OUR bookstore (Caro’s and mine) is doing quite nicely in this small town niche, thanks. Caro has been on the board of our local Friends of the Library for a couple decades plus, and we’ve been dealing online for twelve years. The SUREST route to bookstore failure here in our isolated Western prairie town would be to only cater to “knowledgeable readers”. If that works fine for you, then congrats. But we know our area and we know our potential customers. Caro was looking for suggestions and new ideas that might work for us, not self-important puffery.

  12. Stationery is a good idea to boost your bottom line. I’d also go with tote bags, and maybe some candles, journals, coffee mugs, and book ends.

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