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… Read more

A Golden Age for Readers


By Kathy Crowley

The other day while I was talking with one of my children’s teachers, she lamented the modern day explosion of distractions. TV, video games, ipods and iPhones, social networking. There are many forces drawing children away what the rest of us think they should be doing. Such as…? Well, let’s just cut to the chase and say: “They could be reading.”

I’m happy to be living in this time, though. This is principally due to my very deep appreciation of indoor plumbing, but I also happen to think it’s a great age in which to be a reader.  A recent reminder inspired me to write this post. I participated in a Facebook meme a few days ago, the point of which was to share the titles of ten books that had stayed with us over the years, even over a lifetime. I loved reading everyone’s posts and responses. It was more interesting, of course, when the list belonged to a friend, but I read the lists of people I didn’t know almost as eagerly.  Somehow, strangers aren’t strangers anymore when you love the same books. (I can’t find a term for this kind of bonding but I think if we throw a few German words together Lesenliebe? Bucherverbundenheit? – it’ll get us there.)  I couldn’t help but think that living in the information age makes this experience a lot easier to come by.

Here are my arguments for why this is a golden age for readers:

1. A Room with a View or, So Many Places to Talk Books:

While Facebook may more generally occupy itself otherwise (sharing kitten and baby pictures, for example), there are lots of websites where it’s all literature, all the time. Bookriot, The Rumpus, Goodreads, The Millions, The New Yorker’s Page Turner (shamelessly stolen from us), HTMLGiant, Largehearted Boy…. I could go on. And on.  If you’ve read a book and you want to know what other people think about it, what the author had in mind when he/she wrote it , what music s/he was listening to, suggestions for similar books, suggestions for very different books, suggestions of books about apricots or sword-fighting or hairdressing or…. Not only is it all there, way more of it is there than you’d ever need. Read more