Although the economics of operating an independent bookstore have improved since the end of the Great Recession, running a new store still poses challenges. For the past few years, PW has checked in annually with half a dozen bookstores from across the country that have been open for two years or less to see how they’re faring.
All the stores we surveyed this year are doing well. One factor in their success is that several of their owners have previous experience. Naomi Chamblin, co-owner of Napa Bookmine, in Napa, Calif., brings many years of experience to her new venture. She honed her bookselling chops at the largest used bookstore (55,000 sq. ft.) in northeast Florida: Jacksonville’s Chamblin Bookmine, which was founded by her father, Ron Chamblin. Brian Lampkin, majority owner of Scuppernong Books, in Greensboro, N.C., is also an experienced bookseller. He founded Rust Belt Books in Buffalo, N.Y., which he sold before heading south.
Two stores included in last year’s survey have made big changes that should ensure a healthy future. Bluebird Books, in Hutchinson, Kans., is in the midst of expanding and adding a cafe; New Bo Books, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, changed hands at the beginning of this month. New owner Deb Witte renamed the store the Next Page Bookstore and brings new energy to the enterprise.
Monte Cristo Bookshop, in New London, Ct., however, has closed.
Opened September 2013; 1,000 sq. ft.
“It’s a lot of work and a challenging industry, but we’re in it for the long haul,” said Curious Iguana co-owner Marlene England, who opened the bookstore at the former site of Dancing Bear Toys & Gifts, which she and her husband, Tom England, have owned since 2000. They moved the toy store into a nearby space that is triple the original size.
“Because of the toy store, we had great community partnerships,” said England, who keeps the two businesses completely separate; only about a quarter of the bookstore’s inventory is children’s books. What sells best are literary fiction, cultural studies, and poetry. The store’s tagline is “Get to know your world,” and England takes it seriously. The bookstore was established as a benefit corporation, or B-corporation, and donates part of its income to global nonprofits every month, more than $12,000 to date. England is already considering opening a second bookstore in a couple of years in another small Maryland community.
(Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Opened August 2013; 2,000 sq. ft.
Peter Blackshear worked at Borders for 20 years, including 10 as the bargain book buyer. So when he opened Bookbound with his wife, Megan Blackshear, it was only natural for him to invest heavily in bargain. “Our sales on remainders have gone up, but not as much as trade [books],” Blackshear said. “We went into this being flexible.” Sales at the store are now evenly split between remainders and trade titles. But the average remainder sale is only about half the dollar amount of a trade title. At present, Bookbound mixes remainders and trade books on its shelves. “If we’ve ordered 10 copies of a remainder and it sells out, we’ll replace it with a trade book,” explained Blackshear. The store’s single biggest category is general fiction.
Because of its location near the University of Michigan’s North Campus, it also does well with fine art and architecture titles and general math and science books. Over a third of the store’s space is devoted to children’s books. It also stocks some used books. The inventory mix and store layout are designed to compete with online retailers by encouraging customers to browse, Blackshear said. “People want to see what’s new and bump into surprises.” Although sales have been “creeping up,” he acknowledged that opening a bookstore is “a little quixotic.”
Opened October 2013; 900 sq. ft.
Katherine Osborne was a bookseller for nearly 25 years—first at Bookland, a regional Maine chain that closed, and then at Books, Etc., which also closed—before she opened her own store with her mother and stepfather, Karen and John Paul Bakshoian. “It was the next step for me,” Osborne said. She wanted to provide suburban Portland and beyond (some customers drive in from rural Maine) with an option to buy books locally. She chose a neighborhood where people tend to put down roots; it’s also close to four retirement communities. Running a bookstore with family can be challenging, and Osborne said that there were a “few cranky moments” in the beginning. Dividing the duties has helped. Her mother handles marketing and social media, her stepfather is in charge of inventory, and Osborne does the buying and the bookkeeping. Despite a brutal winter, Osborne said, “we’re holding steady with last year.” In part that’s because she and her family look for off-site opportunities when store foot traffic is slow. Selling books at Nerdcamp Northern New England, an “unconference” on literacy, more than made up the difference in January. Another asset, said Osborne, is “experience. It makes all the difference. I knew people in the business. I knew who to ask. It’s a helpful community.”
(Pound Ridge, N.Y.)
Opened online store April 2013; physical store November 2013; 500 sq. ft.
This self-described “little Bookstore with a big heart” is the only indie hybrid, to open in 2013. When founder Susan Williamson’s mother became ill, Williamson decided to take time off from her doctoral program at the University of Connecticut. To earn money, she set up a website and began selling her and her friends’ old textbooks through Amazon. “The next thing I knew, I had 1,000 books,” Williamson said. When a friend offered her a bricks-and-mortar space, Williamson opened a physical bookstore. “I’m lucky my community is supportive,” she said. “They feel it’s important to have an independent bookstore.” Over the past year and a half, Williamson has begun adding new books, particularly in children’s, which is one of the store’s most popular sections. It accounts for close to a quarter of Booksy Galore’s sales. “Social media has been great for me,” she added. “I have a lot of followers on Instagram. I have people who will see something there and drive an hour to pick it up.” Williamson, who has a 15-year background in producing for film and television, continues to operate the online store. At present, she is storing 1,200 books that she thinks will work better there. As for the bricks-and-mortar store, which was originally part of her retirement plan, she just rearranged the space to add a coffeemaker, the tiny store’s equivalent of a cafe.
Opened September 2013; 1,500 sq. ft.
After seeing seven used bookstores close in downtown Napa a few years ago, Naomi Chamblin and her then-fiancé Eric Hagyard (the two are now married) decided to fill the void with a store of their own. They named it after Chamblin’s father’s four-decade-old bookstore, Chamblin Bookmine, in Jacksonville, Fla. They also trucked in a significant portion of their initial inventory from the original Bookmine. To pay for the shipping and the process of converting a former massage studio into a used bookstore, Chamblin and Hagyard turned to Indiegogo, through which they raised more than $17,000 (their original goal was $15,000). “When we opened, about 1%–1.5% of our inventory was new,” Chamblin said. “But as we could afford it, we’ve added more new books.” She noted that the shift to 10% new titles has helped broaden the store’s customer base. General fiction, both new and used, is the store’s bestselling section, followed by mysteries, thrillers, cooking, children’s, and YA. Napa Bookmine also has an increasing number of sidelines. These changes helped boost this past December’s sales 70% over the previous December. Last September, Chamblin and Hagyard took advantage of an opportunity to open a very tiny second location in nearby Oxbow Public Market. The 22-sq.-ft. Standard, a combination bookstore/newsstand, is doing brisk business in cookbooks.
Opened December 2013; 3,200 sq. ft.
Despite losing his original partner for this bookstore/wine bar, which is named for the North Carolina grape, majority owner Brian Lampkin was ready to hit the ground running when the store opened just days before Christmas in 2013. “I had a lot of experience; I knew what to do,” said Lampkin, who also founded Rust Belt Books, in Buffalo, N.Y. Other partial owners brought additional expertise—writer Steve Mitchell had kitchen experience, children’s bookseller Kira Larson has a masters in library science—which helped Scuppernong turn a profit its first year. “The city was just so ready for an independent bookstore,” Lampkin said. “There’s a growing shop-local movement. People are so ecstatic to have the downtown come back.” Filling the needs of the community has been an importance piece of what Scuppernong does, in part through an ambitious events schedule, which included 30 events last month. The store has an emphasis on literary fiction, plus a commitment to poetry that includes a “serious” poetry section, as well as a program of poetry readings. It also has a large children’s section that features picture books and young adult titles.