Bookstore Owner The Buzz


Self-employed bookstore owners have the opportunity to serve their customers in a way large companies often cannot -- with personalized service that builds trust.

Independent bookstore owners targeting a niche market and offering special customer services can still find success in the age of mega-bookstore chains. Today's bookstore owners need to keep up with technology and use it to enhance their business.

"Enlightened independents are offering additional services, keeping track of important dates, sending birthday and anniversary cards and keeping track of gift purchases so that others may be suggested in the future," says Joyce Gioia-Herman. She is president of the Herman Group, a firm of strategic business futurists.

"Some have recognized the importance of 'bonding' customers to them by delivering full shopping experiences that include opportunities to learn new things through seminars or hear original local poets recite their work."

Building Trust

Ann Christophersen is the co-owner of a bookstore that specializes in publications for women and children. She has found success in this business by providing tailored, personalized service to her customers. She and her business partner, Linda Bubon, opened the store in Chicago decades ago.

"We are a feminist and children's bookstore, specializing in books by and about women and in children's books for all ages," Christophersen says.

"We also serve as our neighborhood bookstore, so we have a section of the store devoted to books outside of our specialty that we think people in our neighborhood would be interested in -- literary fiction by male writers and quality popular non-fiction."

She says her store also serves as a community center for women. "We have a very dense and ever-changing bulletin board of events and announcements. We distribute a number of free periodicals. We are an ad hoc referral service. We sell tickets to community events. We also have a very active events schedule, hosting two to three readings a week."

If neighbors can't find what they're looking for, the store will place special orders.

"Independent bookstores in general spring out of the needs and interests of book lovers, people looking to fill a gap in the bookstore landscape. That is our story, too," says Christophersen.

Online book giants like Amazon.com present some tough competition.

"If independent bookstores are to survive, they will have to manually handle the kinds of things that Amazon is doing technologically -- keeping in touch with people, saving their preferences and providing advice about new releases in their preferred category," says Gioia-Herman.

"What's missing in the Amazon equation is a role that the independent bookseller is perfectly positioned to provide: the important role of 'trusted agent.' In person, these independents can build trust in a way that no megastore or online service has found a way to do."

Getting Started in the Business

Sarah Harvey is the general book manager at a university bookstore. She says selling books is a career that one learns along the way. She points out that there is no formal education for this career and much of what she does is "intuitive."

Her decisions on which books to sell at the store are based on knowing the university market through feedback and her own experiences. She selects a wide variety of general book titles, except for textbooks, to display at the store.

Harvey began working in bookstores as a teenager. She has been working at the university bookstore for over a decade. Patience and good communication skills are important skills for booksellers, as well as a background in English. Harvey has a degree in English literature.

"This career doesn't pay well, but there are other benefits," Harvey says. "If you do love books and reading, it's a very rewarding way to spend your workday."

Her biggest frustrations are competing with online and "big box" retailers.

"In our industry, like a number of others,...the biggest hurdle has been the entry into the marketplace of an enormous number of corporate chain stores, over-saturating that marketplace and using their power to leverage advantageous treatment from vendors," Christophersen says.

"Be smart and careful. Open a store in a market that can sustain it. Know what you want to do and why. Be practical and visionary at the same time. Make sure you're adequately capitalized. Have a good business plan."

Gioia-Herman gives these survival tactics for independent booksellers:

  • Use technology to keep track of your customers, their preferences and their personal and gift purchases.
  • Keep in touch with customers regularly -- have regular, exciting customer appreciation events.
  • Ask your employees for their ideas on increasing sales and other topics and implement them.
  • Teach literacy in your store and let the press know about it.
  • Become an "employer of choice" by being flexible and offering an employee-centered environment.
  • Create a rack of employee recommendations (with their names) and change it often.
  • Join an association and learn from others.

"Independents need to look at what they can do to become valuable to their customers," Gioia-Herman says.

Banding Together for the Future

Harvey says independent bookstores can survive in the future, but they will take different forms. For example, bookstores will need to have a website and post inventory on the Internet. Booksellers must be "technologically aware," Harvey says.

To survive and thrive in a competitive market, bookstore owners have banded together.

The American Booksellers Association (ABA) promotes booksellers' interests. It meet sellers' needs through education, information and advocacy. The ABA represents independent booksellers nationwide.

Christophersen's store belongs to Indie Bound (formerly called Book Sense), an association of over 1,00 independent bookstores of all descriptions. The store has a permanent display of titles recommended by the assocation.

"We continue to do what we do well -- exercise judgment in buying books we put on our shelves and provide competent and caring service to all who come to our store," says Christophersen.

Links

American Booksellers Association
Represents independent sellers across the country

Indie Bound
Check out the bestsellers and recommended books from this association of independent bookstores

Guide to Independent Bookstores
Find one near you

Publishers Weekly
Keep an eye on the world of publishing, with publishing news and booksellers' blogs