Since opening their first used bookstore in March 2007—Gottwals Books in Warner Robins, Ga.—Shane and Abbey Gottwals have leveraged their bookselling acumen to open three more bookstores in central Georgia under the Gottwals name. In addition, the couple has steadily expanded their used bookstore franchise business, Books of Walls, and just opened their 11th franchise location, making 15 stores in total. The franchise stores have enabled the Gottwals to extend their reach as far west as Kansas and east to Washington, D.C.
The first Walls of Books franchise opened in October 2012 in Tifton, Ga., about 90 miles from the original Gottwals store. The newest franchise—the second for Greg Phillips, who owns a Wall of Books in Watkinsville, Ga., as well—opened last month in Commerce, Ga. Altogether, Shane Gottwals, who serves as president and CEO of both Gottwals Books and Walls of Books, anticipates opening five new franchise locations this year and another seven in 2018. “We always seem to beat our estimates,” he said. “So I hope that trend continues.”
“Viability comes in numbers,” explained Gottwals, who would like to see more franchisees run as many as three or four locations. He feels four locations has been the right number for his own stores. The first Gottwals bookstore has tripled in size over the past decade from 1,500 to 4,500 sq. ft. It now stocks 75,000 books. Typical franchise stores range from 1,400 sq. ft. to 8,000 sq. ft., depending on the community. In addition to used books, which together with remainders comprise close to 95% of their book inventory, franchise locations carry publishers’ overstock as well as some new books, particularly heavily discounted bestsellers.
Gottwals said both his stores and the franchise outlets don’t make a lot of money the first time they sell new books. “But we make more the second time,” he said. “Some books we’ll sell two or three times. It boosts the quality and selection of our used books.”
By stocking new books, Walls of Books stores are able to offer high-demand titles such as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which were available at half price one week after the movie was released. Gross sales are about 85% used and remainder titles, 15% new due in part to bulk school orders. In addition to books, the stores carry Melissa & Doug, Fat Brain, and Aaron’s Thinking Putty educational toys.
Walls of Books tries to make store openings painless for new owners, many of whom have no retail or bookstore experience. Distribution of used books is a key part of the services the company offers to franchisees. Gottwals ships the initial prepriced inventory from its warehouse to new Walls of Books stores, which then replenish stock by buying books from their customers—Walls of Books stores offer credit on trade titles and cash for college textbooks—and from Gottwals.
The company offers a three-day training program for franchisees with intensive seminars on all aspects of running a used bookstore at its Georgia headquarters. In addition, Gottwals and his staff assist franchisees with revamping store spaces and with franchise conversions and rebranding of locations such as the one in Commerce, which had previously been an independent used bookstore, Bookstand of Northeast Georgia. The Gottwals team builds the store over the course of four or five days and is available by phone and e-mail afterward to provide continued assistance to franchisees.
After moving his warehouse earlier this year and more than quintupling its size to 44,000 sq. ft., Gottwals plans to offer distribution services to other bookstores outside of the franchise. “It’s a huge jump,” said Gottwals, noting that the former warehouse held only enough books to provide inventory for three Walls of Books stores. The new warehouse holds enough books for dozens.
Many owners, such as Bill Cochran, a real estate appraiser who burned out after 20 years, seek out Gottwals after finding out about the franchise opportunity on Google. His two-year-old, 2,000 sq. ft. Walls of Books store in Zanesville, Ohio, was nominated for a Best of Muskingum County Award. “We’re the anti-used bookstore,” Cochran said. “The store is neat. Our books are close to new, and our most expensive hardcover is $7.97. If I had time, I would open another store.”
Jeff Caudle, who opened a 2,100 sq. ft. Walls of Books in the small town of Atchinson, Kans., in October, said that he began thinking about opening a franchise bookstore after visiting the Dusty Bookshelf in Lawrence, Kans. He owns a commercial building that had previously been a tavern and wanted to repurpose it. “A bookstore is a nice addition to a retail environment,” Caudle said. “There are many positives with encouraging literacy, keeping books available, and getting people away from screens.”
Caudle’s store has already expanded its children’s section by adding cubbies. It benefited from the Hastings bankruptcy and the closure of its store in St. Joseph, Mo., last fall, and sales overall are “well ahead” of where Caudle, a banker, had thought they would be. As a result, Caudle is already in discussions to add a second Walls of Books.
Another new owner, Pablo Sierra, whose 2,400 sq. ft. Walls of Books opened in Washington, D.C.’s Park View neighborhood in January 2016, had done a business plan to open a bookstore several years earlier. “Franchising took care of the industry knowledge I needed,” he said. For him, it helped not just economically to go with a franchise, but emotionally and in terms of morale. When he has a question, he can talk to the Gottwals team.
Since Walls of Books isn’t based on a cookie-cutter model, Sierra’s store reflects his sensibilities and those of his neighborhood. He closed the bookstore on February’s A Day without Immigrants to show his solidarity with immigrant community members, and store events range from a Kids Free Book Friday to creative writing groups and book clubs for adults. Sierra, too, is thinking about opening a second store.
Part of what makes Walls of Books work for owners like Caudle, Cochran, and Sierra is that Gottwals is very hands on. “It’s not like the franchises start up and roll on their own,” he said. “We’re nearly as involved with them as if they were our own locations.”