Do you want to share your love of books with others by opening your
own bookstore? You should be aware that there's more to the book business
than recommending your favorite bestsellers.
First, the bad news: by most accounts, it's very hard to make a living
by running a bookstore. But the good news is that those who do it anyway seem
very happy with their choice.
"The first thing we tell everybody who wants to do this is, 'Have another
income,'" says Becky Milner, the owner of a bookstore in Vancouver, Washington.
"Don't open a bookstore to make money. I honestly don't know a single bookstore
owner who makes a living off of doing this."
Milner says some bookstore owners make a living off of the building that
houses their store (by owning the building and leasing part of it to other
businesses). For others, owning a bookstore is possible because they do it
as a second career, or they have a spouse working or they're living off retirement
Milner has seen a lot of new and used bookstores close in the more than
30 years that she has been in the book business. The forces against the brave,
independent bookstore owner are daunting. "You're dealing with the big box
stores, you're dealing with online competition, you're dealing with non-traditional
book outlets like Wal-Mart and Walgreenâ€™s and Kmart and Safeway...," says
The term "independent bookstore" usually refers to bookstores that are
locally owned and operated. A chain store has many branches under a central
Sue Lubeck's independent bookstore was a home-based business when she first
started it more than 35 years ago in Denver. She sold books from her home
for 10 years, but it isn't an approach she recommends.
"It's just very hard to do," she says. "First of all, we found out later
that we really weren't properly zoned for it. I think it should be kept separate
from your home."
Lubeck's bookstore is now in its own building, where it has been for 20
years. Even though Lubeck has enlarged the building twice over the years,
her bookstore is bursting at the seams with books. "We probably have enough
merchandise to fill three stores this size," she says.
Lubeck's entry into the book business happened at a time of transition
in her life. "My youngest child was starting school, and I knew I had to do
something (to occupy my time), and at that point the area had very little
in terms of bookstores," Lubeck recalls.
"I had met with someone who was much more intelligent about this than I
was, who literally took me by the hand to our distributor at that time, and
that's how we started. And I've been very grateful ever since."
Lubeck has been grateful because she loves owning a bookstore. For her,
it's all about the people.
"I like people," she says. "I like to do things for people and get things
for people. I'm not that intellectual about the contents of the books, but
most of our employees are either ex-teachers or ex-librarians, or other people
who really like books and people. I think that's an absolute necessity."
Like Lubeck, it's the love of people and books that drives Milner as well.
It's the only reason to go into this business, she says. "You love the connection
with the people and the books, and you're not in it for the money. If you're
in it for the money, you should do something else."
Like many independent bookstores, Lubeck's store specialized in one kind
of book at the beginning. "We started as a children's bookstore, but now we
have books for all ages, from babies up to grandparents," she says. "We have
handbags and jewelry. You can come in here with your holiday list and find
something for everybody."
Lubeck's store still has a lot of children's books and resources for teachers.
But now it has many general interest books and a large foreign language section
too. Lubeck says focusing on one type of book can help you build your reputation
and develop your customer base when you first open your doors. Sometimes good
timing can also work to your advantage.
"Being specialized at the start helps," Lubeck says. "We were lucky. Our
timing was good because the teachers at that point (when the store opened)
were getting away from the 'readers' where every child was reading the same
Another advantage of focusing on one type of book is that you don't need
as much money for inventory or overhead. Lubeck says, typically, general interest
stores have to be bigger than specialty stores. "You have to be so big because
[customers] walk in and they expect to find their book, and that's a lot to
handle in one store."
Milner agrees. "It helps to be small and specialized so you don't have
a lot of overhead," she says.
But not everyone sees it that way. Richard Bachmann has been in the business
for 37 years and runs a bookstore with books on all subjects -- "give or take
a few." He says that if you really want to be a specialist bookseller, that's
fine. But don't do it for the wrong reasons.
"I suppose you could open a grocery stand and just sell sweet peppers,
but you might find that people want something more," he says. "Essentially,
you should serve your community, and I don't think you should necessarily
think small. I don't like the idea of bookstores cowering in the shadows."
Bachmann says all types of independent bookstores are facing challenging
times. "There's no question that the retail trade in general is under a bit
of duress," he says. "I don't think the specialist bookstores are faring any
better. The fact is there's no formula."
That may sound discouraging. However, Bachmann doesn't suggest giving up
on your dreams if you dream of owning your own bookstore.
"Do things with passion, taste and intelligence, and keep at it, and keep
your expectations very modest," he suggests.
Milner says there's one great way to prepare for having your own bookstore:
Just work in a bookstore. She also suggests taking bookselling courses offered
by professional associations. "You go for a few days, and they give you a
lot of nuts and bolts, nitty-gritty things," says Milner.
The American Booksellers Association, which has about 1,200 member bookstores,
runs a Prospective Booksellers School.
Milner says bookstores are more likely to survive when they build strong
relationships with their customers. "Some of them do a lot of community activities,
readings, book groups," she says. Some bookstores also add to their in-store
sales with online sales to customers around the world.
Online booksellers have put a lot of pressure on independent bookstores.
"It's hard to compete with that," admits Lubeck. "But if you want to come
in and hold the book and look at it and get suggestions, then you need a live
Lubeck believes that customers will always want that live, personal interaction
with books. She's also optimistic that large chain retailers won't put bookstores
such as hers out of business.
"We even have a [large chain bookstore] around the corner, and it hasn't
bothered us," says Lubeck. She pauses before adding, "As far as I know, it
Lubeck's optimism is reflected in how she introduced herself to that big
store around the corner. "When we moved in 20 years ago, we sent a great big
sheet cake to them," she says with a laugh. "The manager himself came over
and said, in their history, this had never happened. We were secure in what
we were doing."
American Booksellers Association
A wealth of info
Keep an eye on the world of publishing, with publishing news
and booksellers' blogs
Learn more about this association, which advocates for independent