How to save large bookstores
There was always something glorious about walking through a giant bookstore.
Sure, it’s a very different attraction than being in a tiny, genre-focused store, or a used bookstore so crammed with dusty tomes that you have to turn sideways to get down the aisles.
Still, until they decayed to the point that there were cavernously large sections where the shelves had been removed, and nobody was merchandising them, I have to say it felt great to browse through a place with tens of thousands of volumes.
That experience has been going away.
Crown Books is long gone.
Waldenbooks is gone.
B. Dalton is gone.
Borders is gone.
Barnes & Noble…is not gone when I am writing this. They are, however, planning to reduce the number of stores.
Now, some of you are probably saying, “Good riddance”. After all, the “dinostores” were one of the reasons that a lot of local bookstores closed.
Even though I love shopping for books (especially e-books) on the internet, I do think there is a place in the market for large bookstores.
How can they survive, though, when they aren’t as convenient or have as big a selection and aren’t as cheap as the internet?
As a former brick-and-mortar bookstore manager, I can think of a way…two of them, actually.
They both could be done by Barnes & Noble, but it requires a major change in thinking. Customers would welcome them, I think.
The Pop-up Store
When you manage a brick-and-mortar bookstore, you are constantly fighting your rent. When a book is sitting on the shelf, it costs you money, because you are paying rent for the space underneath it. The longer you have it, the less you profit on the sale.
You are also fighting salaries. Even when your employees aren’t selling something, if they are in the store and “on the clock”, money is ticking away.
The answer here would be to only have the store open for a few months in the year (specifically, I would go with mid-November to mid-January).
That is a high demand period for books, especially for gift books (which can be more profitable, partially because people don’t really expect you to mark down a $100 gift book…in fact, it can reduce the sales if you discount it, because they are looking for a luxury item at that point).
You could choose to only stock books with a pretty high likelihood of selling. People could get their monthly romances somewhere else…this would be more for high-ticket items.
There is a parallel to this…Halloween stores. There is plenty (puh-lenty) of large cheap retail space around that would work very well for this.
You wouldn’t have to put it right downtown in a high-rent space…people would travel for this. Adults would remember getting paperbooks (p-books) as kids, and want to duplicate that experience.
You could get investors for those few months…sort of selling shares in the performance.
The rest of the year?
You sell through the internet.
I think this could really work. I picked those dates, by the way, because they are pre-Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and then they go through when people return items (January is actually a good sales month). Returns often mean additional sales. A luxury store like this would also be likely to have fewer returns…the person who got the book isn’t the person who bought the book, so that can complicate them bringing it back. There’s also the factor of not wanting to hurt somebody’s feelings when it is an expensive book.
This is another model that could work well.
Many, many people have a fantasy about running a bookstore. I’ve done some weird things in my life, but I never have to have any reluctance to mention that I managed a bookstore…everybody thinks that’s cool.
The great thing for the franchisor (let’s say Barnes & Noble, in this case) is that the store doesn’t have to make any money. That’s not how the franchisor makes the money.
I was part of a franchise (I didn’t own it, I just worked in it). The franchisor got six percent of the gross every year. Note that it was of the gross (everything taken in), not the profit. There basically wasn’t any profit…I think we had something like five owners in seven years, because nobody could really run it profitably. They thought they could, though. With a bookstore, people would think they could make it work, and even if they couldn’t, it would be a dream job for many people…if they could afford it. I’ve been in many used bookstores where I can guarantee you that they did not make a profit. They ran it because they wanted to run a bookstore…that’s it.
Another way that a franchisor can make money is by having a buy-in fee. Let ‘s say the buy-in fee is $75,000 per location…and there are three locations in our group (and people buy all three together). So, every time the ownership changes, the franchisor makes $225,000! Let’s see, if that happens five times, that’s $1,125,000…not a bad way to profit on somebody else’s failure.
Naturally, people will generally want to think there is a chance to succeed, or you won’t have people buying the franchise (although some might still do it, for the experience). The odds are that some people would figure out a way…and B&N could keep a few profitable company-owned stores (hand-picked, of course) as examples.
Franchisees would have to follow certain guidelines for the right to use the Barnes & Noble name…so B&N can keep up the quality. If you are a franchisee and you don’t meet those obligations (maybe a B&N snap inspection shows the store is too dirty), you could conceivably lose the franchise, because you would have agreed to those conditions.
Yes, I think both of these models would be a way to keep big bookstores around. Consumers would like them, even if they don’t entirely replicate the chain bookstore experience of the 1980s.
I know it would be tough to get B&N to do either of these…although I do think you may see mini-B&N pop-up stores this holiday season.
What do you think? Am I missing something here? Would you want the experience of running a bookstore…even if it was only for a few months one year? Do you think you would travel, oh, fifteen miles for a well-run, large bookstore with gift books? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.