It's Always Easier the Second Time Around: Reflections from a 2nd Used Bookstore

Shane Gottwals
Gottwals Books
My wife and I had our grand opening this past Saturday (July 11th) for our new store in Byron, GA.  Our first store, although slowly, became a hit, and the Lord opened up the doors for a new location.
bookscaseWe had at least 200 people come in, and the sales were very solid.  When we compare opening days for the two stores, this new one has done much more than the first one accomplished.
I’ve been thinking about the reasons for this, and I’ve come up with a very simple list for bookstore success:
1. Have a system
I’m telling you, it was a tough few months not having a solid pricing or trade system in place when we opened our first store.  I know it caused people to turn away and never visit again.
Whatever opportunities you have to not be wishy-washy on your policies, take them!  A sign of wishy-washiness tells your customers that you don’t really have it all together, so they learn to not trust your store with their dollars.  (I hope we all understand that people don’t spend money at places that do not seem firm and established.)
2. Have the inventory!
We started our first store with approximately 10,000 books, and we thought we were “booking it”!  I have read many comments from new booksellers about their inventories, and the general consensus seems to be that people start their stores with 5-10,000 books.  Now, if you’re dealing in specialties, that might work.  However, if you want to deal in money, it will not work.
I urge folks to start with at least 20,000 titles.  Our new store has somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 or so, but I am desperately trying to expand the selection to get it up to 50-70,000.
It all goes back to the whole business of having people take you seriously.  I really think that we will keep new customers and make them returning customers by simply showing them that we have a huge selection.
The sad thing about or first store is that numerous people walked through our doors in the first few weeks of business, decided that we were just too small to be interesting, and then didn’t come back until two years later, after they heard that we had grown.
Breaking those initial perceptions is a tough job.  It’s a lot easier if you open with an impressive variety.
3. Advertise VERY wisely
From what I can tell, used bookstores don’t do a lot of advertising on the local television stations, etc.  This is most likely because the used book business is a low-profit business.  Now, we have never made a mint from our business (we hope for that future…), but we have chosen our advertising media very carefully.
The biggest mistake I see being made is that we assume that doing lots of cheap stuff is as good or better than doing one or two solid advertising pushes per year.
(Hopefully, at this point, none of you actually think you can get by without advertising.)
We have definitely thrown a few hundred bucks out the advertising window, and I wish that we had listened to the experts to begin with.  Most of the time, the most expensive advertising is the best advertising.  The advantage at this stage in the economy, though, American media has gotten a bit cheaper.
We are currently involved in two of the most expensive advertising venues out there: billboards and TV.  It is working great for us, but consider something before you decide upon it.
Byron Bookstore
Let’s say that you start spending $1000 per month on advertising.  If you’re closed on Sundays, that means you need to sell about $40 per day extra in order to pay for it.  Let’s say that this is reasonable, and you really think that you can earn the extra $40.  That’s great, right?
Well, who wants to spend $40 to make $40?  You really need to know that you will double your advertising expense in order for it to even be worth it.  Think about all of those hard-found books that you would sell, simply to pay for your billboard.
I do billboard and TV right now because it makes sense for two stores.  Honestly, though, I don’t think I would have done either if we still had only one store.
I could write hundreds of more words on the subject, but if you are dissuaded by what you’ve read, just know this: word-of-mouth advertising will always do you the best.  Make a solid store that people can enjoy, and they have this natural affinity for telling their friends so that they also can share the enjoyment.  Just make your store that which it should be, and the rest will have an easier time of falling into place.  Go with God, always, and he will lead you to that place where you should go.
Besides the obvious mantras about customer service and the like, I think these three principles are the foundation for a used book business.  It took me having two stores, however, to realize how much easier it is the second time around.  Knowing what I know, I feel confident enough to open other stores.  The first one was simply the toughest.
There is no book or article that can map out your success, but there are plenty of highways toward failure.  I know I have a long way to go, but you’re in a good spot when you know what you’re doing.

7 thoughts on “It's Always Easier the Second Time Around: Reflections from a 2nd Used Bookstore”

  1. Something else we do as far as advertising is to give gift certificates for community events. Churches, schools, baseball teams, other businesses, etc. come to us asking for donations for events they have and we *almost* always give them gift cards (if they can use them). This lets people not only know that we’re here and what we have, but also that we love our community!

    *I say always here because we don’t support things as a business we wouldn’t support as a family.

    -Abbey (Shane’s wife)

  2. My store is four months young and we are holding our own. I have done advertising in the form of flyers, emails and word of mouth of course. I have also done advertising in our local free newspaper for 13 weeks and my daughter and I did a five minute spot on a local morning show. We’ve received new customers from as far as thirty miles away and I’m thrilled. They saw us on the morning show and stopped by, exchanges some books and bought a few.

    Our business is growing…slowly…but still growing. I also donate gift certificates to auctions and school functions but haven’t seen as much success with those, as a matter of fact I’ve given four and haven’t received one back yet in four months.

    There are still days I sit without a soul walking through my door and wonder what I’m doing. Then there are days when I have an $80 sale with one customer!

    I had a book signing as well two weeks ago. A local author approached me and of course I said yes. It went well. I wish I could have one a month!

    Well, congrats on the new store!


    • Chris, you say that your gift certificates were ‘unsuccessful’ because nobody redeemed them – but to me, that is actually BETTER, because you got publicity and it didn’t cost anything! Odds are, somebody who wanted to know about bookstores would have heard of your store from the list of sponsors or whatever.

  3. First, congrats on the new store. I hope to be in your position one day, but for now I am just in the planning stages for my 1st store. I am planning to open a bookstore by next summer. Do you (or anyone else on this blog) have suggestions on the following trades:

    Incorporate or not
    Fancy POS register or a simple one
    Have new books or not
    Buy shelves or make my own

    Again, congrats to everyone who is living their dream of owning a bookstore. I hope to join the ranks soon.

  4. Congrats on the new store and may it go well with you and your’s.

    I do like the fuzzy animals I see in that one pic. How are the sales on those sidde items going?

    Do you have magnifyers and inexpensive reading glasses on the checkout counter? Seems to me those would do well.

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