Want to Open a Bookshop That is Sure to Fail?

Are you considering opening a used Bookshop, terrific?

The world needs more brave souls, especially the type that thinks they can make their community a better place to live in by making available great books at a decent price. If you’re like I was in the months leading up to your opening you must be craving insight, information and tips on things to be wary of. I like to think that you’ve come to the right place.

The Bookshop Blog is full of articles written by successful book dealers just like this one on Universal Truths by George of Fairs Fair Books. Take notice though, I don’t want your shop to end up like mine, closed. If you don’t want your shop to fail (– who does?) then take to heart some lessons by one who knows what it feels like to hang a sign in his window saying:

“Thanks to all those who have supported us, our shop is now Permanently Closed. Best wishes to all of you.”

There are plenty of success stories out there and I can confidently tell you that making a used bookshop work is not impossible, even during tougher times. What you don’t often hear is a story from a failed dealer explaining his mistakes. I’ve made a few and I don’t want you to do the same. First of all I want you to know that I don’t consider my bookshop to be a complete failure, only a partial one.

I still own the business; it has just evolved into an Online only enterprise as this suits my present circumstances better. I also met a great number of terrific folks and built a certain reputation for myself in the community that I can take pride in. I’m often stopped in the supermarket or post office and asked (sincerely) how things are, how the baby is etc.

I have four things to talk about, things that I would love to see you do better than I did. First though, a very brief biography of our shop is in order. Zeeba Books is the name and although I never had a lifelong dream of opening a book store, I am the type that loves to work for myself, be in control of my destiny and had no fear of the challenges that this task would present.

We managed to stay open for almost four years, plenty enough time to learn a thing or two about the trade. We met a lot of great folks and were quite appreciated by the few book lovers that regularly made use of our place. We were an Internet-Café-Bookshop, and I highly suggest that all bookshops add a couple Internet stations if you have the technical ability.

The price of computers and Internet access has come down quite a bit but typical rates for accessing the Net from coffee shops has not. It has remained near $4.00 – $5.00 an hour. It can easily add a few hundred dollars a month to your bottom line. We often had couples come in because the wife needed Net access to check on her work email and to kill time the husband would buy a book or two. (one of many examples of crossover buying).

The real problem came down to cash flow and starting a family. When cash gets smaller while your family gets bigger it’s not a great situation. So we made the big decision to pack up ‘The Dream’ and find some gainful employment. I’m fortunate to have a background in software troubleshooting and tweaking so finding a good career (with good benefits) wasn’t too difficult.

Let’s move on to the point of this story, the mistakes I don’t want to see you making. In no particular order here are four of the things I should have done differently.

Zeeba Books Sign
Zeeba Books Sign
  1. Location, Location and Location. As eluded to earlier George wrote a nice piece about this. The decision we made was to open in a smaller than ideal location (under 1000 sq. ft) on a busy avenue that was across the street from a grocery store but had no foot traffic on our side. We assumed that starting small would minimize our risk if things should go sour. It did actually, when closing it was easy to sub-let the spot but I strongly believe that it was the main reason for our demise. We should have risked more and opened in the quaint village down the street, in as big a place as we could have found. Here’s a simple reasoning to explain the size factor. We would have ladies come in and browse our cookbook selection of about 250 books. Often they would not see anything that got their attention and walk out. If this section had 2 000 books in it I’m pretty sure that they would have made a purchase. So don’t go small, go big or go home. And you MUST have foot traffic. Hardly a soul would bother to make the harrowing journey across the street and I know. I watched hundreds of them walk in and out of that supermarket every day.
  2. Window Display/Signage. I had a huge window that I did not take full advantage of. It should have had ‘BOOKS’ in the largest letters that I could find. My sign, though elegant and well lit had our name ‘Zeeba’ and in smaller letters ‘livres-cafe-Internet’. No one ever noticed it. There is a lady with a shop in a neighbouring community that has a giant sign that says BOOKS!. That’s what I should have done. Skip the cute and elegant, go BIG and to the point on your signage and in your window. Scream out what people can expect to find in your shop. Never have somebody walk in and say, ‘What do you do here?’.

  3. This one is a little more minor but do all you can to watch cash flow. Cash needs to be coming in all the time. One tweak you can do is the trade/credit policy. We did a straight credit system. Give me $20.00 worth of books and you can spend your credit as you see fit. What I should have done is state that they could use up to 50% of their credit against any book purchase. That way I always have $$$ coming in. I had some quiet nights where I saw many books leave our store and the cash till never opened.
  4. This is the most important of all and probably the most difficult to admit. You absolutely have to squash your ego as the business opens. I sat on my stool by the cash looking at my beautiful, charming, well lit, cozy, well stocked, Empty store thinking about how beautiful it was. I always assumed that once a few people came in and saw what a charming place we had, what great prices and great stock that it would be inevitable that everyone that read would be eager to come by. My arrogance told me that I built a sweet store and everyone will love it, my work is done. What I needed to do was bust my behind, going door to door if I had to telling everyone about the shop. I should have stood outside and gave away pocketbooks, I should have been at the mall talking up the place, I should have been at all the local sporting events…I should have screamed to everyone within 100 miles telling them to come by for a visit. Honestly I had one lady that literally lived around the corner coming by our shop, In Our Third Year!, saying that she had no idea we existed – and she was a very avid reader. Ouch. There is a great restaurant makeover show called Kitchen Nightmares (or Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares – the original British show) where Chef Ramsay helps a floundering business get on its feet. Part of every show includes a promotion of some sort where they attend or sponsor some type of event to get the word out. You Must get the word out yourself consistently. Word of mouth is terrific and I still think it’s the best advertising for a small shop. I also still advise against spending on traditional advertising but you and your friends need to be very visible in your community. Don’t do as I did and sit on your comfy chair with your fat head thinking – let them come to me, I don’t need to beg or grovel for clients. It’s not begging it’s just part of business and it’s your business so get out there! Watch two or three episodes of Kitchen Nightmares (rent them or view online if you must) then look around your shop like Chef Ramsay might and think objectively ‘what can I do to get this ball rolling?’.

I sincerely hope this helps one or two of you. As for myself I’m quite happy in my new surroundings, happy to be working with software again and of course, thrilled to still be in the book business. In fact I am sitting in my floor to ceiling library that I use as an office writing this, it feels nice being surrounded by old friends. Please feel free to offer any comments or observations that you think may also help out new or potentially new owners.

Zeeba Books Interior
Zeeba Books Interior

***  I received this comment by George this morning (he wrote the post on Universal Truths mentioned above). I feel the comment ads much to this post and should be included within so that none will miss it. Here it is.


Hi Bruce – I am devastated by your news and not only because I had been making plans to visit your shop in Montreal sometime in 2010.

I definitely feel the pain associated with your words ““Thanks to all those who have supported us, our shop is now Permanently Closed. Best wishes to all of you.”

The website you have developed is outstanding and hopefully you will continue to provide the articles providing so much valuable information to all of us in the book business – none of us will every know enough so more information is always appreciated.

Here it is just after 3:00 AM in Calgary and for no paticular reason I couldn’t sleep after closing our Mount Royal shop at 9:00 PM and your news is compounding the problem.

We have had many used books stores close in our area over the past couple of years and McNally Robinson abandoned our city in August 2008. Most of the stores complained about landlords increasing their rents exhorbitantly but that is usually the easiest thing to complain about because it is so “in your face”.

I think all of us are lured into the book business because of an unfathomable and unreasonable love of books we picked up somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, it turns out there is a HUGE component of business to the book business and most of us are ill-prepared and often oblivious to all the facets we have to learn in that area – on top of the fact we quickly learn the book business itself is so broad and has so much depth we will never learn more than a sliver of it!

In my twenty years in the business I have not met another dealer who didn’t have something to teach me – from display to signage to location to customer relations to general outlook on life. Book dealers are generally a minority in the population at large in that most of them would be considered well-read and quite studious by nature – but it is possible to make that a fatal double-edged sword if you get lost in the learning and allow very much of the dogwork required to slide.

Your points – Yes, the word BOOKS in large letters on a sign is like a magnet to book lovers – sandwich boards and window displays stop traffic.

Cash flow is a problem for almost any retail business and allowing people to just trade for other books is a hazard of the trade. I have mentioned to some customers that I still don’t know if what we are doing makes much sense – allowing a customer the option of rolling their books over in trades so that they can get a quantity of books worth a new value of $400 for books we would normally buy for $100 cash. Some book stores I have been in did not allow any trades – they just bought books for cash. I still feel there is a tipping point where the trade option – especially for books they purchased from you – tends to lock in customers over the long term.

As for getting the word out – anything you can do along that line is worthwhile. During our 2nd-5th years in business we had up to two flea market stalls sending customers to our first store – the flea markets tripled our sales the second year, doubled them again the third year and I don’t fully recall why we ever shut them down – it was probably a mistake.

Another couple of suggestions I would make to anyone who wants to go into the book business – There is little point in arriving with an outstanding work ethic, and then ramp it up a bit – work your A** off and learn to look forward to and love change because books that sell today won’t tomorrow and books that stop selling today will sometimes get hot again. Don’t turn down Gor books, Conan, Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss, Pride & Prejudice, most of the classics for that matter, Think & Grow Rich, The Magic of Thinking Big, The E-Myth and The E-myth Revisited, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Lobsang Rampa, Freud & Jung and any books relating to them, etc., etc.

I know a Children’s and a Young Adult Section present a difficult challenge but they drag in all the parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who have ever been touched by a book and would like to share memories of something really special in their lives.

Bruce – I still hope we can meet someday, hell I’ll only be 70 this year – my mentor was 80 when I met him, and if you keep your blog going I will be among the many in your debt.

If the internet sales aspect can keep you in the book business it will one of the few nice things I will have to say about it. I wish you well.

60 thoughts on “Want to Open a Bookshop That is Sure to Fail?”

  1. I work in a printing shop and we had a customer that would buy 1 or 2 thousand business cards at a time. The cheapest ones, black ink on white card stock, but tastefully done. The cards were designed so his type of business was obvious as you say your front sign should have been.

    He would go to shows and sporting events and indiscriminately hand out the cards. If there were no shows he would hand them out at supermarkets. Everywhere he went he would hand out cards and often get to talk with people. He would question and find out if they did not need his services perhaps they had a friend that did. A couple well asked questions would jog their memories of who they could give the card to.

    His business was an escrow service and he said he gained one or two customer with every thousand cards. One customer would pay for the box of cards.

    I wonder? If one in a thousand need an escrow service how many more would appreciate a book store.

    One last thing. If you decide to print your own cards on a computer printer make sure:
    a.) They don’t look hokey and look like they came from a computer printer.
    b.) The price of your printer ink (and perhaps pre-perfed paper stock) does not cost more than a printing job.

  2. To avoid the look of hokey business cards AND find a great way to get your name out is to have an art contest to design a piece of art for your business.

    Specify black and white to keep costs down. Promote your contest to local schools and newspaper. Offer a gift certificate as prize. If artist submit hardcopy, display them and invite folks in to view them. Also give EVERY artist that follows the directions (no matter how inexpert) a shout out on your website, blog, or e-mail newsletter (or all 3).

    You’ll get good publicity, some great designs that look nothing like stock clipart, and you’ve tapped into the local artist network.

    You can also do this for other things you need art for. I have 2 beautiful painted windows that came from an art contest.

  3. *** This comment has been moved into the original post.

    Thanks so much George. I hope to visit Calgary myself soon. If you ever do visit Montreal please let me know, I’ll give you a quick tour all my favorite bookshops.


  4. Great tips. It’s amazing to me how often I see people opening up new businesses and they don’t seem to take into consideration a lot of basic things. When I lived in Brooklyn I would see this all the time.

  5. May I say how interesting I found your experience, and how sad that you were unable to continue in the business.

    I have now run a bookshop, together with two colleagues, here in England, for nearly twenty years now, and I would like to add a bit of our experience over this time.

    Firstly, bookselling, whether new or antiquarian, rare or secondhand, is essentially retail. If you don’t like being in a shop, sitting there for hours when it’s empty, listening to the same fatuous comments from “customers” who don’t buy, being bored rigid by regulars, while at the same time maintaining a cheerful and helpful face for everybody, then you are in the wrong business. Retail is about selling stuff to people face to face; books don’t always sell themselves.

    Secondly, it takes time to become established. Probably five years at a minimum for certain types of books, and depending on your location. (How many people visit the town once a week, once a month, three times a year, once a year? Will they always make that detour to visit your shop?)

    Third. Probably the most important. Decide what business you’re in. Fine and rare or newish and paperbacks? specialist or generalist? Who do you expect your customers to be? Do you want to sell fifty paperbacks at two dollars each or two scarce books at fifty dollars each? You can’t be all things to all people. The more expensive the books you sell the less space you will need, but you will need to be in an area that has a well heeled client base. The more specialist you are the less you will be able to offer the general public, but you might find that people are driving 50 miles to see you because you are the only place around where they can buy books on railroads or livestock or mediaeval history. If you have an enthusiasm or knowledge of a particular subject then capitalise on it.

    Fourth. Is size important: well, you have to answer number three before deciding that. You mention the ladies who can’t find a cookbook in the 250 you have on the shelves: offering them 2000 won’t make them buy, it will confuse them and spoil them for choice. And what are the overheads for stocking the 2000 in terms of rents, local taxes, heating, lighting, you name it. You can argue the opposite: if they want to buy they will buy even if the choice is small because they just want one book. Make sure you analyse your income by sales per shelf foot: it might make you think about what sells and what doesn’t.

    Fifth. You’ve already said it: location, location, location. What is the footfall past the shop, and who does it consist of.

    Sixth and final! If you have any like minded friends, try running it together. You can spread the load, giving you time to do other things (like sell on the net), and spread the risk. Of course the returns will be less, but you’ll at least be involved in a business you love.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences: we never stop learning, no matter how long we spend in the trade!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your insight Robert, hopefully those that are planning to open in the near future can gain from these tips. I hadn’t considered opening with a friend as I wanted to retain full control but in hindsight it may have been a better choice. The hours I put in were crazy and if it was shared we may well still be open.

  6. Great comments Robert:

    Consider yourself truly blessed you have found compatible cohorts to share such a great lifestyle.

    Bruce – Thanks, I do expect to see you within the next couple of years then.

  7. While the fact remains that a big shop may do a lot of good (for the business), I have always restricted my visits to a few crammed ones where the seller is a voracious reader himself, so as to get the right recommendations. Of course, if the same people moved into a bigger space, I would probably be just as happy as they would be. So yes, size is almost everything.

    I am not sure how many people do this, but when I buy a book from one of the stores close to my place, they stamp their logo (a small one) on the blank page at the end. Now, when I lent the book to a few of my friends, they ended up going to the shop I bought the book from. While I have no idea as to the legality of this sort of marketing, I know for a fact that it worked on me…

    • Yes, we stamp every paperback book. Some end up at the library sales and we get new customers! And we want people to remember where they got that great book. 🙂

  8. Thanks for a great article with lots of useful tips. After 4.5 years in my bookshop I’ve learned a lot. To start, I have to say that I have diversified quite a bit and I also stock specialist CDs, mostly world music, and I also keep a range of Pagan and Wiccan related items that are partly responsible for keeping my shop open.

    One thing I learned pretty early on was the need to stock books that I wouldn’t normally want to keep. In fact, when I was just a market stall I could be more choosy. When I opened the shop I found that I needed to be more responsive to customers needs and wants. Previously I wouldn’t touch a romance with a barge pole. I didn’t have the John grisham/Wilbur Smith/Tom Clancy type books either. These days I find those books help keep the shop ticking over. I’ve also increased my range of cookery books, gardening, art and those other big heavy books that I hated when I had to unload and pack again three times week.

    I also learned to specialise in certain areas in order to keep customers coming back – and I now have a very loyal and wonderful collection of return customers for mind/body/spirit-new age, crime and Australian/Aboriginal studies books – often titles that other bookshops don’t have. Being in Australia means I can also keep sections for Australian classics, and promote Australian authors. I’m sure that people in other countries can do the same for their local industry.

    I do have a certain proportion of new and remaindered books as well as pre-loved. I spend a lot of time searching for the books and music that people want and offer a free searching service anc cheaper shipping for people outside of my city, sometimes below cost price. I make sure my prices are fair and reasonable and affordable but not give-away, and as a sole trader with a bit of family help, I make sure we offer the friendliest, most helpful service we can.

    While income could definitely be better, I think the combination of excellent products and service, and a responsiveness to the needs of our customers, has been the two things that have kept us open and increasing our sales this year, even while on the brink of recession.

  9. I’m pretty much ecstatic about finding this blog. After agonizing over it, I finally decided to go into something because I love it, rather than choosing a profession that makes a lot of money. And I can’t say that I have any love greater than books. So now– my dream is to open a bookshop.

    I look forward to going through here. You have some wonderful advice and I’m sure I can learn alot. <3

  10. Wow – what a great post. Information like this is priceless and so many of the lessons outlined here are true for any “street-front” business. I’ve personally found the first point (Location) to be so so so important to my local business.

  11. I’ve just read through the comments about business cards and I can’t believe that no one has mentioned bookmarks (with the store name, logo, address, phone and map). I thought this was an old standby. I opened in a flea market as a marketing exercise and started giving them away with every sale. Two years later we opened in dowtown London, Ontario, Canada. The best place to open is downtown where the people walk by. Besides that, I bought a stamp (just a smilie face – now replaced with our store logo) and stamped the back of the bookmark in front of each and every customer, and told them that they would get one stamp per visit, and ten stamps would get them a free paperback (or later, a discount on any other book in the store). When anyone redeemed a bookmark I gave them a $5.00 gift certificate. Costs, bookmarks $65.00 a year, stamp $12.00 seventeen years ago, ink $3.98 ten years ago, gift certicates $10.00 a year. Besides a $100.00 a month yellow pages (Bell, noth the others), this is extent of my advertising.

    Avid readers are my bread and butter, some read 5 books a week. I want them to come to my store first. To anyone who buys more than one book at a time, I tell them we buy books, and we take books on trade. I am sure there are lots of other things that book sellers do but every book deserves a bookmark.

    Hank Sommers
    H. Sommers Books
    436 Richmend St.
    London, On., Canada

    • We have two “bookmarks!” One is a nice and sturdy bookmark size one for using in books and the other one is business sized for keeping in your wallet. We stick two of them in a book and ask them to give one to another booklover. Works!

  12. Wow, this site is so informative. I love to write and recently decided that my small town of about 12000 needs a book shop. We have the library, but honestly just realized there is no actual book shop…
    So I talked to my husband and he told me to find out a little about it, get a plan and then we shall see.
    Well this site is what I needed…now I know what to look for, how to advertise, and how to calculate certain costs of running the shop.
    I am also the local henna artist and will incorporate that and a small cafe into the shop as well, very simple, coffee, juice and bitings to start, then can expand on that later as my focus is on the books at the start. I want a nice cosy corner for the kids to enjoy with their parents, an adult area for them to relax.
    I want the relaxation of a library as people like to get out in this town and not sit around the house.
    And the idea of an internet type of cafe, yes that is so great, as we are the gateway to a tourist site and the flow of people through this area is tremendous during the warmer months.
    I can’t wait, hope my hubby likes the idea. Its not here, so cross your fingers, with all this information, I am going to approach him.

    I did have a couple more questions though?
    1. Where is the best place(s) to purchase the books at a good rate, where I can get a large variety?

    2. Where can I learn about proper layout, or get ideas?

    3. Where is a great cost efficient place to buy furniture for a book store?
    Tables , chairs, sofas, soft cushions perhaps for the kids?

    Thanks all of you for all of this, I love this site, and will be a regular to always learn new things.

    Amazing, hats off to you all for taking this time to give this advice, inturn to help others , I believe in Karma, and you will be rewarded in plentitude.

    • I just want to hear your opinion on how where to put the sticker for the price? Should it go on the front, the back or the inside front cover??????

      • I cringe at the word “sticker”. I hope you are referring to new books. Even so-called removable stickers dry into concrete over time. I am usually involved in removing stickers. (by the way an old cd is great for lifting stickers after application of solvent)

          • Agreed!

            Stickers on books do nothing but devalue them. They are a pain to remove and can either leave a sticky residue on the book or worse, even damage a page.

            I am appalled that some booksellers to this day still continue with this abhorrent practice.

            So a tip for all budding booksellers – don’t do it!

            Regimental Books

      • After owning 5 very successful bookstores I can answer your question with one word – DON’T. Don’t stamp your name in the books, don’t put stickers on the books (lighter fluid will take them off) just set a price for your books and try hard to remember what it is. We charge half the cover price so our price is already “stamped” on the back and our customers know where to find it. Why in the world would you want to waste your time putting stickers on books?

        • In answer to your question,

          ‘Why in the world would you want to waste your time putting stickers on books?’

          Answer = Advertising! Use pre-printed labels with your shop name and possibly address and phone number included

          You will then have, eventually thousands of books around advertising your business.

          Obviously you would not attach to valuable dust-jackets but these could be covered with non-adhesive plastic wrap.

  13. Hi Nora and Paul,

    After realizing I’ll never be able to work for anyone but me, I am exploring my passion for books and considering opening my own bookstore. Your article was a huge help! I’m scared and excited.I’m also thinking I’ll need to lean more toward technology and downloads… Thank you! Wish you were here to help me!

    Tina Wells

    • Hi Tina and welcome to The Bookshop Blog. Bruce Hollingdrake is the one that runs this site and it is his experiences that the original article was based upon. Believe me when I say you don’t want my help with getting set up because I’m the king of procrastinators. My slogan is, “Why put of till tomorrow what you can put off till next week.”

      You can however draw on a lot of years of experience through this website and I’m sure the list of categories on the right side of this page will keep you busy learning. You might want to start a blog or journal to share your experiences with others. Bruce also invites people to share their experiences, teachings and hints, tips & tricks of the trade (original writings only please) so if you find you have input for us please write to him.

      I find this website to be a wonderful community and I hope you feel welcome. Keep commenting!

      • Hey Paul – thanks a lot for the nice words (as usual). Between the experiences of all of our wonderful writers there certainly is a wealth of experience here.
        We are looking for one or two new writers, check out the link on the top about joining the team.

    • After opening five very successful stores we can tell you NOTHING can beat your personal knowledge of a wide range of authors. People will come in every day and ask you what you think of this book or that author. You had better know the answer. One of the downsides of the business is that you have to force yourself to at least skim books by authors that do not interest you in the least. Its part of the business. The more you know the more money you will make. We have a formula: make the store pretty, organize your inventory to make it easy for the customer to find what they want, avoid unattractive books and know your inventory. As for software,we have never used it and think its counter-productive. We also never accept credit cards. Our small store this year will gross around $80,000 and and it is still growing. We are retiring in 2011 and bet you we won’t have any trouble selling it.

  14. Signage is one thing I think I got right -my store used to be in a very high traffic location for all of 26 years but if you were driving past you would hardly have noticed it was a book shop and if you were walking past you might not have noticed it either. I am still amazed how many locals did not know it existed.
    The store name is there but discretely. The 8ft high 16 ft wide facade screams SECONDHAND BOOKS in simple black on white.
    I also have my little A frame out the front to catch people’s eye as they walk past but I still get locals saying they did not know they had a local book shop.
    Though in store layout and inventory I could have done a lot better

    • We have a very successful bookstore in a small town (25,000) No matter what you do there will always be people who have walked by your store for years and then come in and ask when you opened. You have the right idea, put the largest letters your window will hold and say BOOKS. You can never beat word of mouth advertising.

  15. Thanks for the great advice. For years I heard location location is important to any business. I am about to start a bookstore which has been my vision for over 10yrs, however, the discouraging thing is the square footage is less than 1000. After reading Zeeba’s story, I wondering if I should look into a larger space.

    • Hi Samantha – Zeeba Books here…

      I would say that size depends on what you are selling. If you are selling very old books and collector’s items then 1000 feet would be fine but if it is a general store you should look at at least 1200 – 1500 as a starting point. Regardless of size though is the spot. Take it from me the best spot is what will enable you to thrive.

  16. any kind of swaping or trading is a recipe for failure. Ive seen it time and time again. Your landlord wont take his rent in trade.You run your business on cash. pay with cash. You can amass more books with trades but business’ need to run on cash. Too many bookstores run thier bookstores like bookstores not business’ A bookstore should be run like any other business. I dont care if your selling books or potatoes you still have to operate like a business. pay cash for books you buy and charge cash for books you sell . never trade and youll always have CASH in your till.

  17. You give good advice but miss some fundamentals. My wife has started 5 bookstores from scratch, sold all but her present one for a very nice profit and made a good living at the same time. The first thing she did was get rid of those formulas from the 60’s where you take in two for one, give one quarter of the cover price as credit and end up with a lot of books you don’t want. We pick and choose our books carefully (if they don’t look almost new they had better be hard to find books) and we pay CASH for those we do take. No records to keep,no roladex with people’s store credit,we pay cash and they pay cash. Another thing is our store is beautiful and extremely well organized. We NEVER pay more than $2 for any book and most of the time between $1.00 and $1.50 and sell for half the cover price. Anyone trying to sell books with only a 100% markup is either crazy or stupid.We just put four current store up for sale and are retiring. It’s a wonderful business and you get to thinking of fyour store as your child. As an example, we sold a store for $15,000 under our highest offer because my wife did not want her “baby” in the hands of a person she thought was not suitable.

    • Ed, you’re sure right about the 60’s policy; it doesn’t work today. We changed our policy to “Bring in a book and get one of ours at half price.” We don’t get too many books that way. Since we only sell popular fiction paperbacks, we’ve also set our price under our competitor’s – $3.00 cash or $1.50 trade for books $7.99 and less. Works for us; we’re doing well, and no money out of our pocket.
      How do you determine the price, when you wish to sell a used bookstore?

  18. I knew a bookstore where the owner would snarl at customers who lingered too long “This is not a library!” and was seen to be chasing birds with a broom, seeking to smash them, if any got into the store.

    I think this place lasted from 30 to 40 years.

  19. This post has made some fascinating reading. I opened a Cafe in a medical centre 3 weeks ago and due to the Docs complaining about the smell of food, I decided to change my menu to a Coffee shop menu and instead of purchasing seating for the area, I am converting it into a book store. I am a book worm and I do some freelance writing, and thought this may be the best option. My location is fantastic for a Cafe, and has quite a bit of footfall on a daily basis, but I didn’t ever think a book store needed its own kind of footfall.

    I know there’s hardly any bookstores nearby, there’s only one chain book store about a couple of miles away.

    Any ideas on where to buy books from?!
    I am sorry you had to close your store and I am glad that you started this blog.

    • Once people see that you are willing to buy old books they will appear. The goodwill or Salvation Army often have a decent pile of books. It becomes an easy part of your business (the buying of stock). Good luck.

    • Once you start selling books, the books will find you, Ginni. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve never met a bookseller yet who has trouble sourcing stock. Good luck with it!

  20. We just opened our second used paperback bookstore in techie San Diego, about 45 minutes from our other store. A lot of used bookstores have closed here. As a matter of fact, one, that is 3 miles from our new one and has been in business for 20 years, is closing this August. She is giving out our bookmarks to her customers. Why is she going under and we are starting to thrive, after only being open 3 months? Yes, Location. Also, we are a used bookstore that doesn’t look like a used bookstore; we are white, bright, light, clean and new looking. We’re very organized with no overflowing shelves, no books on the floor and an inviting seating area with plenty of natural light.
    Our problem is the e-books. Anyone out there noticing them affecting their sales?

  21. I am manager of a small locally owned bookstore and have enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and questions- I have got some good ideas.

    One thing that we have done with mixed results and I didn’t see it mentioned is donate gift certificates to charitable events in the promise that they also accept a bookmark to display that we donated.

    I have donated 6 times in the past year and have had 3 gift certificates cashed in. But I keep my eye on the big picture and that is the sheer amount of people who see our bookmark displayed.

    I like the bookmark in every book which would really help because we sell to a lot of tourists.

    Another thing I do, is take bookmarks and put on on various community bulletin boards.

    The owner has the store set up as cash only. We buy and sell but do not trade so about once a month I run a “sneaky santa” sale and offer up some off the wall sale. Sale usually runs for 4 days.

  22. A very interest thread – lots of great comments to read.

    I run Regimental Books which is a predominantly online book business that specialises in Australian military books (95% of sales are online) which we operate from my house.

    The thing for us is that we have a specialised niche (military history books and with a very large selection of Australian unit history books) which is catering to a specific interest group.

    To help our cash flow, we also do medal mounting and framing and also sell militaria (badges, patches, uniforms, helmets etc) which all ties in very nicely with out Australian military history niche.

    We are thinking about expanding into a physical shop front ourselves to grow the business so many of these comments are excellent.

    Regimental Books

  23. Wow, thank-you so much for your insight. To have someone offer their knowledge and hard earned wisdom free is a rare thing indeed, especially in this day and age.

    I am in the beginning stages of thinking about opening a business (hoping a bookstore!). I loved reading all posts so far and will keep an eye out for more. I admire each and everyone of you for your confidence and perseverance in dealing with business. I can only imagine the hardwork and effort that I will need to put in to grow a business of my own.

    Thanks once again.


  24. Why would anyone consider starting a bookstore (online or brick and mortar)when Barnes and Noble is struggling and Borders just closed?

    • Call it passion or insanity Jack. Most booksellers have a love of books and that drives them. The Big Boys at Borders made errors and could see the end was inevitable yet it seems they continued on the same path. A big business like Barnes and Noble can become top heavy with people that don’t sell books. The Peter Principle applied.

      There are many booksellers that make a good living with their sales but those that really succeed are the ones that do as George says in the posting, “work your A** off” and be willing to learn more as he intimates in the line “In my twenty years in the business I have not met another dealer who didn’t have something to teach me…”

      Many small time sellers, like myself, are not business savvy and quickly learn, as Bruce did, that there is more to the business than sitting in a building filled with books, feet up on an ottoman, pipe in mouth and waiting for the flood of customers. It does take work.

      Don’ know if you read the comments to this posting but some reasons are given there. There might be many ‘reasons’ for starting a bookstore but most will have the same thread of ‘a love of books’.

      • Thanks Prying1!
        I’m in the process of establishing my own online bookstore but have heard these kinds of discouraging comments from others. Of course, AMAZON is the ultimate threat.

        • Hi Jack! Uh oh! Now Homeland Security is going to monitor this website…

          I always find the ultimate threat is my getting lazy. You going through Chrislands? I’ve found them to be great and also AbeBooks gets the most sales for me.

          Occasionally I list a book on eBay but the prices there are most always lower.

  25. I just wanted to say thank you for posting this. I’ve worked on and off as a bookseller for the past few years, and I can’t seem to get thoughts of opening a business out of my head. I’ll definitely keep your advice in mind as I attempt to make a niche for myself in this market. Naysayers tout the dominance of ebooks in coming years, but I have spoken with literally hundreds of individuals who’ve expressed that they don’t want to live in a world without actual, hold-in-your-hands books. Hopefully that bodes well for the both of us. Best of luck with your online selling! 

    • You are very welcome. I have (and enjoy) my Kindle but I also spent a good hour in a bookshop last night. I think it’s great that I can have the best of both worlds. PS I’ve moved from a seller to just a collector of books.

  26. Thank you, Bruce, for sharing your story.  What a nice name for a bookshop, ZEEBA, and I highly appreciate the advice about the BOOK in big letters.  I am in the first few days here of a newfound desire to open up a used bookstore.  I recently moved back to Abu Dhabi, where I was born and raised, and only because I can’t find a decent job in film here– that’s what I studied in Boston and worked for a year doing in New York– and now that I’m back home, I really miss all the used bookstores I’d weekly, even every other day, spend an hour, sometimes even two or three, browsing, making lists, and then settling down for a bit to continue reading a book I’d previously began and would continue my visits until I was done with the book and could move onto another.  The few bookshops I was a regular customer at had signs like yours did, no big BOOK sign, but many did have a table set outside right beside the store height-length window panes by which the store’s interior were clearly visible, and this table featured in various stacks an ample selection of books to show for what collection might be inside, e.g. some Hunter S. Thompson, some Bukowski, some Hemingway, some Nabakov, and a few other oddities, like Leonard Cohen’s novel, “Beautiful Losers,” or filmmaker Miranda July’s book of short stories.  I guess a selection like the books I just listed typify a display belonging to an “indie” bookshop, whatever that “indie” label means today; I suppose hip and cool and socially relevant with today’s young adult youth.  I only found such bookshops in the enjoyment I got from the habit I have of walking around in whatever city I live in.  Never saw any ads for a bookshop, unless it was an ad for Barnes & Nobles or Borders, but I can’t recall any ads for them either; just happened to walk by them and went in.  I’m no fan of big bookshops like them.  I’d rather have my indie book shop paired with a neat, trendy coffee shop next door, and next door to that would be an old-fashioned video rental store (of course, we’d have to have blu-rays & DVDS).  I plan on making something like this happen here in Abu Dhabi, a city where a bookshop is either a small stationary store offering a wide supply of children’s educational books, or primary school textbooks, or big book shops in this city’s big shopping malls.  You know the Strand bookstore in New York?  That’s huge and I would certainly go out of business and broke having something that size here in Abu Dhabi, or perhaps I underestimate the people here… no, I think there’s more to the location then the size of a bookstore.  I’ll keep looking for insights, though, before I buy a spot for the shop.  Fact remains there is no book shop like what I have in mind here in Abu Dhabi; I would be a first.   What I need to now is where would you acquire your books, as in did you contact publishers to sell you books from their surplus/overstocked inventory, as in for very low prices, in order to sell them as used, or was that not the case?  Also, once acquired, did you have to enlist a contractor and pay them to build the shop?  I guess that’s a foolish question.  Of course one must have to do that.  I’m sure it’s quite a hefty price, based on how elaborate a plan one has in making their shop look pretty and manageable.      

  27. I’m looking into owning a cafe bookstore and my dad keeps telling me how silly it is. He’s not saying it’ll be hard work or difficult, he’s outright saying it’ll fail. It’d be nice to have a few people believe in my business I want to start!

  28. Bruce, THANK YOU for this blog ~ I, too, am thinking of opening up a used bookstore but had no idea where to start ~ just wanted to say “thanks” to everyone who has contributed and been so forthcoming with information.

Comments are closed.