For many consumers, the words “independent bookstore” conjure an image of a small shop on a main street with books warmly displayed from floor to ceiling, the owner pausing from reading to sell a title or offer a recommendation. Though the nation’s smallest bookstores strive to generate that feeling, the realities of day-to-day business are vastly more complex and challenging for owner-operated shops.

In interviews with PW, more than a dozen owners of bookstores—most of which are smaller than 1,200 sq. ft.—described the perks of going it alone, as well as the serious obstacles they face in managing all of the aspects of running shops by themselves.

Annie Carl, the 34-year-old owner of the Neverending Bookshop in Bothell, Wash., is one of many booksellers who describe grueling work weeks as a reasonable trade-off for not having to manage staff. “I think I would be terrible if I had employees,” Carl said.“I’m very type A, which lends itself well to running a store with no employees.”

Carl speaks from experience: she began selling books at 15 and opened her 560-sq.-ft. bookstore two and a half years ago, following a five-year stint at nearby Third Place Books. Selling used and new books allows her to control her margins, and she relies entirely on volunteers—including her mother—for the occasional day off. She has never taken a steady paycheck, but the business has grown. “I’m helping customers; I’m recommending books; I’ve got a lot of the balls in the air. I can see that I’m doing better, that the shop is building toward sustainability.”

Getting the doors open in the first place was one of the biggest hurdles for Christine Brenner, owner of Read with Me in Raleigh, N.C., a newly opened 1,100-sq.-ft. children’s specialty store. A former teacher and school librarian, Brenner hit the books when she decided to open her store, devouring information from the American Booksellers Association and attending Children’s Institute to get advice from booksellers.

Industry information was easy to gather, but finding a lender to back the store was difficult. “There weren’t any business loans that had reasonable interest rates,” Brenner said, adding that banks were reticent to loan to her and her husband at all. “We hadn’t owned a previous business. We had a business plan and all the loans were supposed to have been for people without previous businesses, but banks didn’t want to talk with us.”

Brenner found it particularly challenging to convince bankers that the existing industry data was credible. “Even though I was aware of the uptick in independent bookstores, not everyone else was,” she said; she eventually decided to self-fund the store with her husband.

For filling out her shelves, Brenner turned exclusively to wholesalers, as did Terry Sherrer when she purchased the 900-sq.-ft. Bank Street Book Nook in New Milford, Conn., in late 2017. Sherrer had worked in publishing, but after being away from the book trade for a few years, she was surprised when she tried to set up accounts directly with publishers. “I would love to go through the publishers directly,” Sherrer said. “But as a brand-new owner, it’s very difficult to get terms.”

Sherrer said the time she saves on ordering is spent on other issues. “My biggest obstacle is trying to get author signings, because I don’t know enough contacts.” And by ordering from wholesalers, her ability to stay on the map with publishers is reduced, making it more difficult to get them to send authors her way.

ABA board president Robert Sindelar hopes to make it easier for independent stores to order directly from publishers with Batch, a streamlined, centralized accounts interface currently in use in the U.K. At the ABA annual meeting at the end of May, the organization announced that, after having conducted a successful pilot program, it intends to support the introduction of Batch in the U.S. very soon.

“Obviously wholesalers are an incredibly important part of our business,” Sindelar said, especially for owners who are “often their own accountants and bookkeepers.” But he added that ordering directly from even a handful of publishers through Batch “could be the difference between profitability and nonprofitability for a small store.” Sindelar said that in addition to saving on margins, they could benefit from promotions that are otherwise unavailable.

Personal Creativity and Increased Education

Beth Ineson took the helm as executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) in January and visits stores across the region, as does administrative coordinator Nan Sorensen. One of the most important things that small bookstore owners can do to be successful, Ineson said, is to “constantly be thinking about display and merchandising.” Especially for smaller stores, she noted, changing the windows and front-of-store displays is “the easiest thing because it doesn’t involve money, it’s your personal creativity.” Ineson said that given how much small store owners work, it’s also easy for them to overlook those kinds of possibilities. “Your merchandising can become like a piece of furniture. You get used to it.”

Ineson and Sindelar both said that digital education is among their highest priorities, and that their aim is to make it easier for booksellers to watch conference sessions and gatherings without having to close up shop.

Many small bookstore owners welcome the opportunities presented through increased online communication. Mary Swanson has owned the Bookloft in remote Enterprise, Ore., for 30 years, and she employs many of the techniques described by Ineson. She keeps a diverse array of products, changes displays, and mixes new and used books throughout her store, which also has a café and locally made arts and crafts for sale—all in 1,000 sq. ft. of space. Though Swanson consumes industry news and information, she has only been to BookExpo twice. “Winter Institute always sounds appealing,” she said. “But I live in a mountain valley, so getting out in January or February isn’t possible.”

Through choice or adversity, many small bookstore owners also have to embrace a willingness to consider drastic changes. After 18 years in the same location, Diana Portwood of Bob’s Beach Books in the coastal town of Lincoln City, Ore., recently moved her store, downsizing to 1,200 sq. ft. while also making it Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. Working five days per week in the store and two days handling paperwork and ordering from home, Portwood said that the move was challenging but worth it. “I pay myself a salary,” she said.

In Bothell, Carl is facing a move of her own, having been told by her landlord that her lease will end in August. The news set off a scramble for her to find new space in a neighborhood that has rising rents and few small storefronts available. She settled on a new location seven miles from her current storefront and is hopeful that her customers will follow her. She’s not alone in facing real estate challenges.

“If you talk to any [bookseller], if they’re leasing their space in an urban area, that threat is always there,” said Sindelar, who owns Third Place Books (where Carl once worked). He often recommends that booksellers find landlords who have multiple properties, noting they are more inclined to offer preferential terms to a business that has low margins. A landlord with only one building will eventually want to maximize profits on the property, he added.

After nearly 30 years in bookselling, Dan Sullivan is still finding new ways to ensure that his Stoneham, Mass., bookstore, Book Oasis, is making its way. He has partnered with another nearby bookstore to do school book fairs, and like his fellow small store owners, he said he keeps on top of as much industry information as he can while tending to his business.

“Things are improving,” Sullivan said. “I wouldn’t use the word the ABA uses: thriving.”

Sullivan said that he keeps his doors open by being honest with his customers—in good times, bad times, and everything in between. “There’s a need for balance in it,” he noted, before adding that it’s enough to be able to say, “Hey, we’re doing well; we’re getting better; we’ve stayed here and been paying all our sales tax and income tax all these years while all these companies down in the mall pulled out. We’re still here.”