It’s been a busy week in a very good way. We’ve gotten inquiries from people in sizable cities that have only had second tier chain bookstores after the departure of Borders and Barnes & Noble. And, we heard this new store update from Jay Jackson, co-owner of Absolutely Fiction Books! with his wife Becky:

“People were waiting for us to open the doors, several people told me they almost cried when the first building deal fell through, they are emotionally invested in the Bookstore and make up our core fans. For them it’s not just a place to buy books it is a dream come true, Their dream.”

A Texas community celebrates the opening of Absolutely Fiction Books!

A Texas community celebrates the opening of Absolutely Fiction Books!

Perhaps it is true that we only recognize the value of what we had when it is lost. The residents of Lufkin, Texas once upon a time had a Waldenbooks. Becky worked there and was devastated when it closed. For years, she mourned the loss of the bookstore. Others did too.

When we can buy anything online, why do we miss any retail store?

Bookstores are special places. Yes, it’s the books and the staff and the smell of coffee and the comfy chairs. And, it’s so much more than that.

In the U.S., we have experienced a mind-bending political campaign that has brought about a series of shockingly new lows. Insults, bullying, the deliberate spread of misinformation, the lack of apologies and basic courtesy. The dark side of humanity has shown itself without shame in a country we thought stood for high ideals and personal responsibility, especially from those who wish to become our national leaders.

For months now, this dark side is the center of every media story. As a result, the campaign makes its way into casual conversations. People are upset for a lot of reasons.

That’s why when Becky Jackson puts fresh flowers out in the bookstore on Fridays and mentions it on social media, customers come in just for a look, a dose of something beautiful and refreshing. Then, there are books on the tables and shelves that are symbols of civility.

Bookstores ground us. They connect those who value facts, seek knowledge and common ground, want to engage in meaningful discussion and make the world a better place. It’s a place where people honor one another, even when they disagree, with courtesy and respect.

It’s no surprise customers of Absolutely Fiction Books! became emotional when they learned an indie bookstores would be opening in their community. Yes, it’s retail, yet a symbol of civility. May the flurry of new bookstore openings continue. We need bookstores for ourselves, our communities, our country, and our world.

Wendy Werris, a writer for Publishers Weekly magazine, wrote a “Soapbox” editorial that described her short bookselling experience working at Barnes & Noble. I closed the issue after reading her piece and let out a big sigh.

As technology has changed the way we work and live, we’ve seen the number of new books published exponentially increase. At one point a wholesaler mentioned we have more than 3 million books in print. Now, no one ventures to even utter a number, but I did hear that we’re at least at a clip of 2,000 new books per week. Yes, per week.

Indie booksellers are not only affected because the store size is finite, but there’s only so much time in the day to review publisher catalogs and industry news. How to keep up is an ongoing challenge.

Every book on this table display at Chicago's RoscoeBooks comes with a recommendation.

Every book on this table display at Chicago’s RoscoeBooks comes with a recommendation.

Yet investing time and energy in buying just to return is wasteful. It’s wasteful for the bookstore, for the publisher, for wholesalers, and for the book industry.

We want the best books for our community in the bookstore. Recommendations from sales reps is tremendously valuable; Above the Treeline helps; and spotlights from the American Booksellers Association (IndieNext) and regional booksellers associations help us focus our investment of time and inventory dollars.

In Wendy’s soapbox piece, you get an image of booksellers unpacking books from boxes, then gathering them up and boxing them back up for return. Every day, like the movie Groundhog Day, the task is the same.

Where’s the bookSELLING?

Our true north is with investing in the books we want to introduce to our community. Our work is to ensure when a book leaves the store, it’s not leaving through the back door on its way back to the publisher, but through the front door, in the hands of a customer who will enjoy a great read they have discovered at our bookstore. Selling means a focus is on aligning marketing, merchandising, and staff handselling.

When there are so many books and so little space and funds, we need to make sure our true north is reflected in the books that grace our shelves. Unlike corporate chains, we’re not in this business to buy and return books. When we care about great writing, a good story, and exceptional research, we will work to make sure those works are discovered. Sales, profits, and sustainability follow.

People often ask us to describe the kinds of people who are most successful bookstore owners. The answers may be surprising … the ability to master spreadsheets is not top of the list!

Susie Alexander, former B&N employee, opens Once Upon a Storybook in Orange County, CA. Her husband Norm and Curious George help during the recent Grand Opening.

Susie Alexander, former B&N employee, opens Once Upon a Storybook in Orange County, CA. Her husband Norm and Curious George help during the recent Grand Opening.

Love People – When you’re in the business of buying and selling books, it helps to know (and love) the people you’ll be serving. Great bookstore owners are involved in their communities, know a lot of people, and love listening to and learning from others. You can serve others when you understand their needs and desires.

Respect & Admire Authors & Illustrators – We are nuts about books. We devour them ourselves, always find a book to give as a gift, become wild evangelists for authors and books we’ve enjoyed, and look forward to conferences when we can hear from the authors and illustrators themselves. You can sell what you believe in.

Open to Ideas – Work and life begin to meld when you do what you love. You can be at the hair salon and get a really great idea to use in the bookstore. There’s an appreciation for great ideas and a knowledge that you can be inspired in the most unlikely places.

Eager to Learn the Business – Few people who open or buy a bookstore come from retail management backgrounds, but there are some business skills that are essential in this low-margin business where it’s easy to run out of capital and be unable to continue the dream. Successful owners don’t fly by the seat of their pants, but honor the business they’ve begun and learn to manage operations.

This combination separates those who “play bookstore” from those owners who rise to the top of their profession as successful stewards of their business.

This is an era of opportunity for indie bookstores to reach beyond the four walls of the store to bring tremendous value to your region. Note that instead of ‘community’, we’re now saying ‘region’ … with all of the store closings in the last decade, people feel lucky if their city or village has a bookstore, even luckier if it’s a lively independent bookstore. Customers are driving great distances for a ‘real bookstore’, even when books are just a click away.

Politics & Prose launches The Writer's Cottage building deeper relationships with customers and extending their reach throughout the region

Politics & Prose launches The Writer’s Cottage building deeper relationships with customers and extending their reach throughout the region

To move books out of the realm of commodities, indie booksellers like Washington D.C.’s Politics & Prose has developed a series of workshops and now a writer’s retreat. Spend a week on your own relaxing and writing, stay a week with a writing coach to guide you, join a week-long program with other writers. Engaging local writing teachers, partnering with a locally-owned lodging business, reaching out to fill a regional need … how very indie.

The bookstore can be the creative force being pulling all of the partners together, all parties promote like crazy to build attendance, each share in the proceeds, each benefit from having developed a one-of-a-kind experience that brings them tremendous word-of-mouth-marketing and customer loyalty.

Key is the focus on learning and growing … especially now with Baby Boomers retiring (many times, early) and wanting to engage their brains in meaningful things, there are all kinds of opportunities a bookstore can create in a “series” that appeal to travelers, lovers of classical literature, history buffs, military retirees, knitters and crafters, those writing family histories for their children and grandchildren, and on and on.

Building a successful business starts with love and an understanding of what others want or need. Booksellers are often the ones to be the creative force in bringing everyone together to create those unforgettable experiences that earn respect, appreciation, and loyalty, just like what Politics & Prose is doing with The Writer’s Cottage.

We just arrived home from an on-site visit in a community that once had a Barnes & Noble bookstore. When the lease was up for renewal, B&N decided to exit the market, leaving millions of dollars of annual sales to customers up for grabs. In this case, our client, Thorne Donnelley of Liberty Bookstore, is in the midst of expanding his bookstore and revving up marketing to capture this gap in the local book market. Yet, what about all of those other communities now without a bookstore?

Libery Bookstore

Thorne Donnelley seizes the opportunity to capture the West Palm Beach, Florida market now that B&N is gone.

While there are people opening bookstores, there aren’t enough who have looked at the gaps and said “I will open bookstore in my community.” Many markets are now underserved, which often means the online Goliath get the business by default.

If you are thinking that then person to open a book store is you, here are some important considerations you may not be hearing from the media or even your own network of family, friends, and colleagues:

1. Print reading remains strong – According to research published in Publishers Weekly, ebook sales may level off at just thirty percent of the market, way less than the original predictions by IT professionals (who were self-serving in their forecasts). Seventy percent of book sales happens in print.

2. Younger people choose print too – When you think of kids growing up with printed picture books and those who fell in love with reading by devouring the Harry Potter adventures, there’s no surprise that many teens want to read in print. They’re using electronics for social interaction, but there is a perceived benefit to holding a book.

3. We need the balance between high-tech and high-touch – Many people go to a bookstore because it’s it feels like a sanctuary. People who work from home vocalize their need to be around other people. Most of us need a balance of time alone and time with others, for conversation and connection. Bookstores are third places and now that many communities are without bookstores, people recognize what’s missing.

Bookstores will not disappear if people keep asking the beautiful question, “Who will open a book store in our town?” If you’ve had dreams of opening a bookstore, but thought it was no longer a wise choice for your resources or time, keep learning and investigating the opportunities. A bookstore will meet the needs of readers to discover great books and give reasons to gather and talk about ideas. Bookstores fill that human need.

In the latest book industry news, Barnes & Noble has announced that it will be close more than 200 stores over the next decade. While some in the mass media are sure to see this as further evidence of their predictions that the printed book is dying, I see it as a smart corporate business decision that will open doors of opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Quaint places to gather, rest, and connect make a great community.

Quaint places to gather, rest, and connect make a great community.

For many of us who have spent time in corporate settings, the decision makes perfectly good sense. When big-box stores were all the rage, B&N seemed to be opening stores in communities large and small. Even into the ‘90s, those big boxes were filled with lots of books – not necessarily a greater selection of books within a subject category, but multiple copies of the same title just to fill all that shelf space. Because publishers offered quantity discounts and additional co-op funds, retailers like B&N got a better deal the more they bought. That not only resulted in a huge outlay of cash, but they often returned 30 to 40 percent of that stock (indies average 11 percent returns) when it didn’t sell through in a timely way. Imagine the labor costs of ordering, receiving, shelving, and returning books. Then add the freight costs.

Enter the 2008 economic crisis, followed by the growing acceptance of e-reading, and their retail strategy proved unsustainable. The company held long-term leases with suffocating overhead, and had devoted more and more space to marketing e-books, where the profit margin was considerably less than it is with print books. If ever there was a time to change course, this is it.
Without Borders and now with B&N exiting many markets, opportunities await the entrepreneur. The Pew research has shown that avid readers who read electronically are still buying an equal number of printed books. People still love to hang out in bookstores, because that’s where they discover great new books to read. In growing numbers, people are joining the “indie” movement and prefer to shop locally. Publishers and authors still need face time with readers. Consumers still long for meaningful “third places” to feel connected with others. Buying a book online makes it a commodity; but books are so much more than an addition to a shopping cart.
If you’ve dreamed of opening a bookstore, but have been scared away by the mass media yet again proclaiming that books and bookstores are dying, think again. Corporations who once dominated a niche market are now shifting their resources, leaving opportunities for indie entrepreneurs.