How to save large bookstores

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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. ๐Ÿ™‚ 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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 theย I Love My Kindle blog.


13 Responses to “How to save large bookstores”

  1. Stephen Townsend Says:

    Neither one works. If I wanted to save say a Barns and Noble you have to rethink how you do business. Cary less books in their original binding and have a high speed printer / binder that would allow you to print a book on the spot for a customer.

    This way you can sell physical books from your website in real time. Well, almost real time.

    These books would have to have a special format so you could print them to a generic binding and cover.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Stephen!

      The basic idea to which you refer is called “Print On Demand” or POD. It’s a good idea for certain situations, and has been discussed several times in this blog. This might be a good place to start:

      There are certainly some challenges for it, but it has been part of the “re-thinking” which we and others have been doing.

      One challenge is that you would need authorization from the publisher to do it…it would fall under copyright. With the increasing popularity of books by independent publishers, that becomes a much more daunting task. Amazon might have many more titles than your POD machine, simply because so many books are published directly through their Kindle Direct Publishing service. Those books can be quite popular…and locating the publisher (which is often just the author) could be difficult.

      Another one is simply the reliability of the machine and the need to keep it stocked. If you’ve worked with a home printer, or even gone to a place with higher quality printers (like a Kinko’s), you’ll know that there can be significant down time…and a bookstore wouldn’t have a technician on the premises.

      The key thing I’d say in regards to your comment, though, is that the main postulate here was saving large bookstores. In your business model, why does the store have to be large? Are you picturing, say, thirty of these machines in one building? I would think there would be a significant risk of idle time throughout most of the year. The machines will probably be there in one of the three likely ways: purchased by the store; leased by the store; or owned by someone else. In all three of these cases, having machines which are running well below capacity for the majority of the year might be significantly inefficient in terms of cost.

      Again, your basic idea is good, although I see it more for small stores (even something like a 7-11 or on a college campus), and it might have an application in a larger store that also stocked high-quality copies (which I also think is part of the future).

      I look forward to hearing from you again.

  2. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I used to shop at all the store you mentioned. One of the problems I always had with large bookstores was that the inventory in any one genre area (SciFi, Mysteries, and Computer books were 3 of my main interest areas) was actually pretty thin.

    When I lived in NYC there were small genre-oriented specialty stores (2 SciFI, 4 mystery, 2 technical) that had really deep inventory in their specialties, and the owners were really good at recommending good new authors (especially in mysteries).

    Sadly, most are gone: the McGraw Hill technical bookstore is still there as is Forbidden Planet (but they only do scifi costumes and comic books these days).

    I don’t think there is any future for large bookstores — I do see a small role for small specialty stores (like luxury and coffee table books).

    We can already see that for the mass market the future is eBooks. For the other half of the publishing business it’s probably also ebooks, but the picture there is less clear.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Borders (at least in my area) was different on that. Each store had their own buyer for at least some genre sections…for example, the Emeryville Borders had an in-house buyer for the science fiction/fantasy section. That meant, while they didn’t have the depth of a dedicated SF/F store, they did have a good rotation. That person, I believe, had come from within the ranks of the store…possibly even had been a clerk.

      In most dinostores, though, it wasn’t like that.

      Science fiction stores (as you point out, much broader than just books) and other specialty types can stick around, I think, as long as the experience outweighs the additional consumer cost and convenience as compared to the internet.

    • liz Says:

      Ah, I had forgotten the dark days of the pre-mid-90’s when it was a challenge to find computer books! I remember when they finally gave up more than a shelf for Computer Science … previously, it was so small, you had to ask someone for directions how to find it! If I remember correctly, they had it next to Science Fiction, which was very smart – usually got some unplanned purchases that way. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, liz!

        Part of the reason you had to ask for directions is that something like that is a “focused market” item. If you wanted a computer book, you wanted it. You’d go to the dark and dingy back of the store to get it.

        That’s not true with the new novels, especially ones not already on the bestseller lists (the bestseller section can be in the back of the store). You tend to see those “unplanned discovery” books in the high traffic areas, so people stumble across them and see them before their brains are overwhelmed by all of the input between the front and back of the store.

        I think many people’s brains (not everybody’s) tend to shut out input once it passes a certain current processing level, unless you take a break. That’s happened to me in record stores in the past (but for me, not ever in a bookstore…I could look at every book in a 50,000 title store and still keep going).

        That’s one reason for the chairs some bookstores have had. People sigh and say, “I just need a break” and sit down and close their eyes (limiting input), or perhaps nowadays read a bit of a magazine. That always felt like theft to me if you didn’t intend to buy it, but when we were in Boston, someone at a nearby table picked up maybe five similarly themed magazines and clearly sat there and read them all…and, I assume, put them back.

  3. HikeUp Says:

    Finally going to ask this…what bookstore did you manage?

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, HikeUp!

      I appreciate your curiosity…I’m quite curious myself.

      I haven’t said that because it makes me feel more relaxed in revealing more to my readers like you about what happened there. It’s not that I’m under any legal obligation, it’s just that otherwise…it feels like “kissing and telling” about a former romantic interest. It’s quite different if you name the person/company than if you just talk about the experiences. I’m particularly protecting the individuals with whom I worked. I think the basics of the stories can be interesting without knowing who it was, or where I was. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Carol B. Says:

    I love shopping at B&N and wish there was some way to have them profit from the books I purchase for my Kindle after browsing there. So, I have come up with my own method. I track each title I find at their store but later purchase for my Kindle. Then, on my next visit, I make a purchase for each title. It may be a book for a grandchild, a cook book (I still prefer those in paper), a coffee table book, or one of their sale books. But I always make a one for one purchase.

    I wish there was a better way. I would truly hate to lose the browsing experience.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Carol!

      That’s a nice way to do it!

      I prefer browsing on Amazon, actually. I was in a Barnes & Noble bookstore recently, and while I still feel as happy as Scrooge McDuck in the money bin ๐Ÿ˜‰ it doesn’t really feel the same as the “old days”. There were maybe ten tables devoted to NOOKs, for example.

  5. Stephen Townsend Says:

    I agree with you that large bookstores are the goal to save. I believe if a Barnes and Noble could use print on demand than for obvious reasons they would have a larger inventory.

    As for copyright, if you remember Amazon had a small inventory of e-books when they started.

    As for cost, economies of scale would be at work here. A large bookstore would need many printers. The more you buy the cheaper each unit is to buy, and manufacture.

    Imagine getting the book you want right now. Don’t need an e-reader. Best of all you own the book. Sell it, lend it, give it away. Amazon can’t offer that. A new nitch in the market place.

    It will work until e-readers are as numerous as cell phones.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Stephen!

      Great! That (saving large bookstores) was just the goal of that post, specifically, but I do think a lot of people would like to see them saved.

      Amazon had about 80,000 e-book titles when they opened the USA Kindle store in 2007. I’m not quite sure how that relates to copyright here? The issue here is that the store can’t print a copy and sell it, if the book is under copyright protection, without authorization by the rightsholder. That means more fees and more time and energy to line it all up. It’s likely to be an intermediary that does that part, in my opinion, and that could create a layer of cost (just as we used periodical distributors, like Ingram or Publishers Group West so we didn’t have to deal with each of the small ones ourselves).

      I think your cost comment might be addressing my concern about keeping the machines supplied with paper and toner and such? I’m more concerned about that logistically. Let’s say a machine is expected to produce fifty 200 page books a day. That’s 10,000 sheets of paper (thinking of it like a copier, just to keep it simple).You are probably used to buying reams of paper (500 sheets). So, if the paper was of the same cheap quality, and there had to be twenty reams in it, that’s a big machine. I would guess it would have to be restocked at least once a day. I know less about the binding agents that might be involved.

      To be clear, I don’t want the p-books, myself. I think that’s true for a lot of people…we prefer e-books. It’s not a comparison between the two…if p-books were as easy to get as e-books, I still wouldn’t be getting them. Part of that has to do with the ease of using them (increasable text size, search, and so on). An aging population will continue to make e-books more attractive over time.

      E-readers are more numerous than SmartPhones already…since SmartPhones can be used as e-readers. ๐Ÿ™‚ Very roughly, 60% of the US population now has SmartPhones:

      I think the correlation between serious readers and SmartPhone users might be even higher, since I would guess those both correlate to higher income and education levels.

      Roughly 20% of the US was reading electronically a year ago, and it is likely to be higher now:

      That 20% could likely encompass a very large percentage of the serious readers, which is where the year-round market is for book sales. That shifts at the holidays, when books are given as gifts, and somewhat during the summer, when some people read for recreation who don’t do so the rest of the year, I would guess.

      Amazon, by the way, may be able to offer used e-book sales in the future:

      With e-books now, you can share them much more effectively within your own circle than you could with p-books, but you are right that selling them, lending them, and giving them away to people not on your account is more difficult.

      The key thing for me here in our discussion is that I think POD definitely has a place…but I don’t see it as a store that just does that. It could be at a Kinko’s, or a convenience store, or a grocery store, or a genre-focused store, or even something like an arts show. It could probably work very well at hotels and airports, and for that matter, at conventions.

      I think POD can work…I also think my ideas, which more closely resemble people’s nostalgic book browsing experience than “libromats” would, might also be able to work. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Round up #222: Mark Grist, Paperwhite update | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] have given some ideas earlier about How to save largeย bookstores, and it’s possible Barnes & Noble will pull a phoenix on this…but you don’t […]

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