When is it a Good Time to Expand Your Bookstore?

We have another new contributor here at The Bookshop blog. I’m pleased to welcome Shane Gottwalls to our group of writers. Here is his first introductory post.

Is it time to expand?

Gottwals Books has been open for nearly 2 years. My wife and I started this venture after realizing that a business degree and an English degree work well together for sorting and selling used books. The passion was there, my retail management background surely helped, and the finances were working at the time.

Our shop opened with what seemed like quite a load of books. We started off fairly successfully with an opening day that promised great things. As time passed and the initial shock of a nice-looking used bookstore (in an area in sore need) went away, the sales remained consistent, yet stagnant.


Since that era of low sales (we actually had one day where we sold $4… total!), our business has increased month by month. One way that the Lord has blessed us is in the fact that the store has always paid for itself… even in the slow days. We never went into the red, although our personal finances weren’t great for quite some time.

Recently, an opportunity opened up in an older, long-established shopping center about twenty minutes from our current location. There have been two or three successful stores in the center (they closed for personal and chain-wide reasons), and the people of Byron, GA are ready for another place to buy quality used books.

I should take a step back and explain our current store’s outlook… we expanded 8 months ago, acquiring a neighboring space. We went from roughly 15,000 books on the shelves to approximately 50,000. Last year’s sales chart looks like a mountainside, continually rising as the year past. The new center is much cheaper per square foot, but it is much bigger. We should be able to get 75,000 books onto the shelves while offering an area for coffee (which I don’t really recommend… but that’s an entirely different article).

We have weighed all the options, the expense, etc., but the decision to open another store has its own set of worries. Primarily, my full-time income goes away in order for me to run the new store while my wife manages the established location. Regardless, is now the time to open ANY new business?

My answer: In the used book business… yes! I can’t tell you how much ground we seem to be gaining on the local chain stores. People will always read… we in the book business understand the need for knowledge. Accordingly, people will always buy books… no matter how many Kindles (or their brothers) come out. We all know the difference between flipping pages and flipping screenshots. There is something precious about flying through a good book.

As it looks right now, we are going to take the leap. We have confidence in where the Lord is leading us, for we have prayed and considered all the options (just like we did with our first successful store).

Bookselling is a wonderful trade, but it is not without its tough times. Understand this if you are planning to open a new store or expand an existing one: location is absolutely everything. To get the location, you often have to pay out the back end for it (I know we have!). But, to have that standout store, you have to make concessions, understanding that paying more now will bring more customers each day, as long as you make it over the first few bumps in the road. It might be extra-tough at first, but things will pick up as long as your town is not already flooded with used bookstores.

I know that many would say, “Well, open a book store that is different from all the others… carry vintage books, etc… find your niche.” Honestly, with the number of books that you must sell just to keep the lights on, be careful with how specific your stock is. Uniqueness does not always equate with sales, especially if there are other stores in the area.

Make it work. If it does, keep it going by expanding. You can only milk one area (and get more and more milk out of it every time you try) for so long. To me, expansion is key.

I know this is tougher than talk, but keep in mind that my wife and I are in our twenties and have no children. Regardless of age, though, keep your business in mind. Greater growth is good when initial growth is evident. Don’t go bigger if it hasn’t worked so far. Also, don’t expand if you aren’t prepared to see your business do big things. Have optimism, but watch the numbers.


11 thoughts on “When is it a Good Time to Expand Your Bookstore?”

  1. Thanks for that great write up. We have been selling online for a couple of years, but keep getting scared off of taking the big retail leap. I hear of more and more places folding the retail location and going straight online. How depressing!

    You are an inspiration and I do wish you all the best. Interestingly, my wife has an MBA and I teach English — hopefully you are proof that those educations can produce successful bookselling.

    All my best, Ken (www.geneseeriverbooks.com)

  2. I encourage you!
    Even if our store were wonderfully successful online, I know that we would still have fight to have a retail location. It is a neat experience… just something cutesy and quaint about it, yes, but the business side is very dynamic.
    It’s one of those businesses that is not like a mattress store, for instance. You can’t rely on two sales per day to keep the store going… it takes a lot of people with a collectively big appetite for books.
    Gotta try it.

  3. WOW! A business degree, an English degree and retail management experience – it looks like a perfect pedigree for a bookstore(s) operator.

    And your name and signage are also perfect (even moreso if the letters were in black and the background was canary yellow) with the word BOOKS featured.

    I love your optimism, admire your enthusiasm for the business, appreciate that you are quickly expanding your inventory and I am happy your gross sales figures are increasing monthly. You are right in seeing there are unlimited possibilities for expansion in the used books business, and yet if you look around, bookstore after bookstore (both new and used) are going out of business. If you can find the time to figure out why, many of us old-timers would like to know.

    I, for one, would caution you about opening a second store in a local “established” area with cheaper rent per square foot where “successful” stores have closed for somewhat vague reasons. I would suggest you would be better off opening a second store, preferably in a corner location, in an area where the rents (and traffic) are higher.
    Your statement:
    “Regardless, is now the time to open ANY new business?
    My answer: In the used book business… yes! I can’t tell you how much ground we seem to be gaining on the local chain stores. People will always read… we in the book business understand the need for knowledge. Accordingly, people will always buy books…”

    Is true … and not really true!

    The used book business can weather many of the storms that wipe out other businesses – but it can bite the ass of any operator, large or small, who is caught napping.
    It is easy to gain ground on any business whose operator is well established, anyone who is reasonably satisified with their station in life and anyone who no longer sees the need to work more than 8-10 hours a day on their business.
    Statistics consistently say that only 10% of the people read and only 10% of them will go into a used books store. Fortunately, the 1% of the population we draw our customers from are mostly addicts – addicted to reading – who can withdraw from reading only under extraordinary circumstances (but aren’t times like these extraordinary circumstances?).
    We in the book business live with the hope that someday the other 90% of the population will someday find the time in their busy lives to think that reading a book might somehow enhance their lives. Don’t expect that to happen suddenly … or anyday soon.
    The people who buy books are represented by miniscule numbers compared to those who don’t.

    I hope anyone who reads this comment is inspired, not deflated – because I believe Shane Gottwalls and his wife have everything it takes to be extremely successful in any business – and we are all lucky he chose the books business because operators like them can help lift the rest of us up.

    Good Luck and hard work share a commonality. Do the latter and people will see you have the former.

  4. $4 is your worst day? LUcky you! I’ve actually had a few zeroes, usually in the depths of winter when the snow is heavy on the ground. Those are DEPRESSING.

    As to specializing, if you’re the only game in town, broad is good. As competition moves closer, you want to get more specialized in your most profitable area. I’m in a town where there’s FOUR independent used bookstores within two blocks. (I am one of them. plus 2 drugs stores with the usual “NYT bestseller” rack). Very little of our stock overlaps. Having that many different specialized stores close together actually attracts more people. It’s a destination site.

  5. HA! An optimistic used bookseller? I don’t know what the younger generation are coming to. You’re fighting tradition, my young friend.

    Good article. Keep it up.
    Bob Lewis (Sylvan)

  6. Good story, good article!
    I was at Fort Valley State University for one academic year as a temporary faculty from 1996-1997. I miss the places: Warner Robin, Byron, Macon, Fort Valley. Is Byron a much smaller place than Warner Robins?
    I opened my retail place last year and I am still struggling to make it viable. I am still keeping my job and my wife stays in the bookstore from 11am-3:30pm. She can not stay there too long as we have three little children. We have seen many zero days and of course there are good days also.
    I have an initial inventory of more than 15,000 books and plan to increase it in the summer. I know that I can make the store work but I have to spend more time on it. Right now I havnt sorted the books yet, most of the books are not categorized. So when a customer comes in and asks for a specific book I can not find it even I remember that I have it.
    I hope that there are some discussion on inventory management and software.
    Optimism is good. We need it.

  7. Great information from all who have contributed. A couple have mentioned having about 15,000 books on the shelves and then expanding. Can you give an estimate of the number of square footage needed for that number of books? Also, when you speak of specializing, what advice can you offer on specializing for used college books? We are thinking of catering to the local college and other colleges/universities in the region in a combined “on the shelves” books and online selling and reselling students’ books.

    • Hi Tim – thanks for dropping by.
      We had about 8 000 books in 800 sq. feet and a lot of that space was used by our espresso bar. I was estimate that 15 000 would easily fit into a 1500 sq. foot store. I’m sure others can give more detail. George has a bunch of stores so perhaps he’ll comment.

  8. I definitely don’t recommend the college textbook thing. From what I understand, unless you are really doing it large-scale, it can bite you in the rear end.
    As far as shelving space for books… we began our first store with 10-15,000 and we had 1500 square feet. Honestly, I think we could have comfortably had 25,000+. We have expanded to a total of 2700 sf and have about 50,000 books on the shelves.
    Our second location is 3600 sf and we hope to end up with 50-75,000.

Comments are closed.