Over the past six years, Georgia-based Gottwals Books has gone from a single used bookstore in the town of Warner Robins to four 3,000 sq. ft. stores, each with 40,000–50,000 books. In addition, founders Shane Gottwals and his wife, Abbey, have begun franchising the concept through Walls of Books retail stores. Last October, the first franchise opened in Tifton, Ga.; a second Walls of Books in New Orleans will open in the first quarter of 2014.
Initially, the Gottwals planned to open a Christian bookstore—he taught English and media at Central Fellowship Christian Academy in Macon; she is a former missionary kid with a degree in business. But they decided to launch a general bookstore with titles ranging in categories from general fiction to history, self-help, and Christian fiction and nonfiction. “We got started before the recession, and we tried to carry new and used books,” said Shane. “However, the recession forced us to notice the potential for used books rather than new. Used books are far more recession-proof.”
The Gottwals credit their ability to compete with Amazon and other discounters by offering books at 50%–75% off the suggested retail price, helping most of their stores average a sales growth of 10% over the past five years. The stores also carry discounted audiobooks, greeting cards, and $20,000–$30,000 worth of Melissa & Doug products. Customers can sell trade books for store credit, college textbooks for cash and credit. Teachers and schools can earn additional discounts.
After the Gottwals opened their fourth store in four years, in Perry in June 2011, they decided the best way to continue to grow the company was through franchising. “Every bookstore needs 100% of your attention, and we could only do so many,” explained Shane. “We want people to have their own stores, unique to the owner. We are there to help them on the business-end of running a store.”
The Gottwals’s franchise store plan is based on the sections and authors—like Nora Roberts and James Patterson—that sell best in their own stores. Their two biggest sections are general fiction (50–55% of inventory) and children’s and young adult (20–25%). Gottwals and Walls of Books share a central warehouse in Warner Robins, and the Gottwals provide the initial inventory for the Walls of Books stores. “With used books, you can’t build your inventory like a new bookstore. You have to go to yard sales or hunt for the books,” said Shane.
The franchise package also provides training, Web-based support to answer questions on the day-to-day running of the store, and expertise on what to sell and how to market the business. Franchisees pay a one-time fee for intellectual property rights and a monthly fee for support. Their contract is for a seven-year term. “We help provide everything from signage, price labels, T-shirts, and store totes to business cards. We also include a free Web page and company e-mail,” said Shane.
Lois Harper, owner of the first Walls of Books, in Tifton, credits the franchise for the success of her 1,600 sq. ft. store. “I would never have opened a bookstore without the assistance of Gottwals Books,” she said. A lifelong reader and frequent shopper at the Gottwals in Warner Robins, Harper had never owned a business prior to opening the store. The company walked her and her daughter-in-law through the process of stocking the shop with 20,000 books, pricing titles, and organizing shelves. “Everyone loves the store,” said Harper. “They especially like the organization, labeling of shelves, and variety. I just cannot say enough about how wonderful it has been to work with Gottwals Books. I plan to have this store in downtown Tifton for many years, and pass it down to my granddaughter one day.” Harper is planning her first author event for this fall.
The Gottwals seek out would-be bookstore owners by advertising on franchise Web portals and book-enthusiast Web sites, as well as placing ads in national magazines. “We talk to potential franchisees each month, aiming to open multiple locations each year,” said Shane. In the short term, he noted, the company’s goals are to “take care of our growing local customer base and continue finding ways to improve our nationwide business model.”