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Independent Bookstores Struggle for a Long Shelf Life

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 income.

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 Walgreen’s and Kmart and Safeway...," says Milner.

The term "independent bookstore" usually refers to bookstores that are locally owned and operated. A chain store has many branches under a central owner.

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 book."

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 bookstore."

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 hasn't."

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

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

Learn more about this association, which advocates for independent bookstores

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