Bookstore Economics 102

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by Kathy Crowley

Over the past year or so I’ve learned a lot about the economics of independent bookstores.  That’s because my husband and I have been trying to work our way into the business. Who knows if we’ll get there – some days we’re all ready to order the really cool bookmarks we’ll be handing out with the gazillions of books we sell, the next we’re thinking: “Oh… maybe not.”

One thing many of you might not know that came as a shock to me: although 90% of the job would seem to be sitting around in your interesting, pleasant shop and talking about books with your equally interesting and pleasant staff and customers, there’s this other thing called Making Ends Meet.  Making Ends Meet might be interesting but it isn’t pleasant.

Here’s the ordinary person’s (that would be my) version of Bookstore Economics 101: the profit margin for selling books is very small.  You can’t mark them up (the price, after all, is right on the cover) and readers can easily get a cheaper-than-coverprice copy of most books via Amazon or some other online retailer.  The expense of running a bookstore, on the other hand, is relatively high, mainly because successful bookstores need to be located in places with decent foot traffic and parking – exactly the kinds of locations where rents are pricey. On top of that, they require a skilled and educated staff.  All this is why most independent bookstores that are keeping their heads above water are doing so by also selling “non-book” items (cards, calendars, toys, etc.) where the profit margin is larger, or sharing space with a café, or selling beer and wine, or… You get the idea.

With the help of lots of people, especially the number-crunching, whip-smart, always good-humored bookstore consultant and writer Kate Whouley of Books In Common, and the wonderful owners past and present of our favorite bookstore, Porter Square Books in Cambridge, we’ve made a lot of progress, but the bottom line still looks… not pretty.

This is where you — and Bookstore Economics 102 — come in: if we want to change that ink from red to black, we need bold new ideas, and since all the experts are still struggling with this dilemma, we decided to step outside the box and get all the suggestions we can. Yep, we’re after that one-in-million, diamond-in-the-rough idea that will make everyone say, years from now, “Why didn’t I think of that?” So, to get your creative juices flowing, here’s what we’ve got so far.

A lot of people have suggested “services” we could add to enhance the bookstore experience – “You should get some of those massage chairs, like the ones they have at Sharper Image.  You could charge people to sit in them while they read.”  How about offering speed dating for book lovers?  Could be fun. Child care? Um, we love kids, but no. Literary manicures? (No idea what this means…Anyone?) One friend, when she heard that one of our possible locations included lower level space, suggested we include a laser tag option.  “I mean, if you have the space, people love laser tag.” Ok…

Several people have suggested that we ought to be able to use my medical training (and license, and DEA #) to our advantage.  Free flu shot or medical consultation with book purchase? Or just the opportunity to kvetch about your health with someone who knows the lingo? One suggestion: we could offer prescriptions – “You know, for the kinds of drugs that people’s regular doctors don’t want to prescribe….” Oh yeah.  I know about those. No thanks. Too hard to run a bookstore from prison.

OR, said another friend, thrilled by her own flash of brilliance, “You should apply for one of those medical marijuana licenses that Massachusetts is giving out!”

Exactly. What better way to get people in the community all excited about the new bookstore than to include a pot dispensary!

Another way to brighten – or, actually, blacken — the financial picture might be to find unusual “non-book” items, goods with a high profit margin that might appeal to book lovers.  Apparently there are bookstores that sell furniture (e.g the perfect reading chair and light).  Or how about comfortable clothes for lying around the house and reading? Schlumpy Reader Chic (SRC™), here we come.  Audiobook pillows? How about selling something that people don’t traditionally associate with books? One of our friends, a mathematician — which is almost like an economist, right? — suggested we sell guns. “Books and guns.  I’ll bet no other bookstore is selling guns.”

Yeah. Well. Good point. And yet…. We’re still looking.

So what do you say? Ideas anyone?

(Come up with a good one and we’ll send you a pair of Schlumpy Reader Chic sweatpants AND a free round of laser tag.)


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