Selling books in the modern era

When I was growing up, we did two types of shopping. Commodity items came from department stores like Sears, and specialty items came from specialty stores. To this day, if I walk into a book store, I expect to encounter a book expert behind the desk, who can help me find what I want. If I walk into a hardware store, I expect someone who can help me to fix a problem with my sink. If I walk into a feed store, I expect someone who knows the difference between red oat hay and alfalfa hay. In a department store, I have no such expectation.

Most of us who still have independent bookstores have survived because we know our products. When someone comes in my store looking for that mystery by a Montana author with a detective that works in a topless bar, we can find it. Same thing if they’re looking for last month’s bestseller with the pink cover, that long poem about Hell by the Italian dude, or a good book about building tree houses. That skill alone, however, will not allow indie bookstores to survive much longer.

The Wal*Mart generation has grown used to walking into stores and finding employees who know nothing about the products they sell. When they go shopping in brick & mortar stores, they’re either browsing randomly, or they’ve researched what they want. To me, it’s worth paying retail if I can engage with someone who knows what they’re talking about and get tailored recommendations. To the current generation, it’s not.

So we face a dilemma. We can try to cut our costs and compete on price; we can specialize, go high-end, and develop a reputation people will seek out; or we can diversify.

Option 1 seems on its face to be a disaster. With rents and wages up, we can’t possibly compete on price with Barnes & Noble, much less Costco. But there are stores out there that are making it work with used books, remainders, overstocks, and “scratch & dent” books. If you know what you’re doing and put in the time to build your stock well, you can even compete with the e-reader crowd. Why pay $10 for a new book on Kindle or iPad when you can buy a used copy for $3 and then sell it back to the store for $1 when you’re done reading it?

Option 2 (the “Nordstrom” option) works in larger communities where there’s a big customer base to draw from, but it’s getting harder and harder to pull off in small communities. The only way to make it successful is to specialize and build a stock that nobody else can match. This will require a great deal of time tracking down those small publishers and vanity-press books that don’t show up in book distributor databases—or even in Bowker’s Books in Print database.

Option 3 is an extension of the route most bookstores are already taking. I remember attending a bookseller conference five years ago where one of the panelists said every bookstore should have candles and wind chimes because they sell. Coffee shops in bookstores are so common they’re expected now. Book-related products like journals, calendars, and magazines have been bookstore mainstays for years.

It’s possible to combine options 2 and 3. A good example would be Barjon’s Books down the road from us in Billings. Their specialty is “alternative spiritual” books, and they stock it deep. Where my store has a shelf for pagan and earth-based religions, Barjon’s has a whole section. And they also stock everything from herbs to candles to tapestries to belly-dancing outfits. This approach has kept them alive and thriving since 1977.  Just don’t go there looking for a copy of Huckleberry Finn.

It’s taken us a little bit of time to settle on our direction. We’re keeping the “general bookstore” selections like bestsellers, thrillers, and Sudoku, but we’ve heavily tailored our stock to local themes and children’s nature/science. We still have a used fiction section, but it can’t compete in sales with our tea bar or cigars. The children’s books are augmented with educational and nature toys.

How are people taking this? For the most part, very well. A few customers have come in and declared that we’re obviously not a bookstore anymore because of “all this other crap” even though our book inventory is the highest it’s ever been. That’s a risk we took when we packed the shelves tighter to make room for tables and chairs. Our sales of tea (both bulk and served in-store) and cigars have more than compensated for the steady slide in new book sales over the last four years.

(The “all this other crap” comment amused me, because it was made by someone who was looking at the spinner rack of my Who Pooped in the Park? books, which has a selection of authentic Montana Turd Birds sitting on top of it.)

What will Red Lodge Books look like in another ten years? Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be selling kilts and swords. But if we continue to adapt with the times, try new things, and drop what doesn’t work, we’ll still be here.

1 Comment

  1. YES to kilts and swords as well as other physical goods that particularly appeal to hard-core readers (while getting swamped with too slowly selling vanity press books would be an easy, fatal road.) The point of a store is to draw a visitor into buying as many things as possible, which requires different categories of offerings that all appeal to the same target markets, it’s why big stores work better as a visitor leaves with items from 9-16 or more categories of goods (hopefully many of them consumables that will require another store visit for replenishing like bread, milk, diapers, vitamins, etc.) . Little stores struggle to offer enough categories of goods, there just isn’t the space or inventory financing, which has been driving bigger stores forever. Additional square feet of retail space is surprisingly cheap to build and service, you’ve still got 1 person at the cash register and other overhead doesn’t climb at the same rate as sales do with more square feet of displayed goods and available categories. The old General Store didn’t disappear, it just grew into Sears, K-Mart, Walmart, and Costco. While the percent of the population who reads books has kept shrinking (the race to ignorance) the book purchases by intense readers have really climbed with greater selection and better information (like the Amazon customer reviews and “people who bought this also bought this”) that reduce the risk of trying new authors (not just the cost of the book but the precious time devoted to reading it.)

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