Last month at Winter Institute when Steve Bercu, president of BookPeople in Austin, Tex., said at a panel on “Surviving Hard Times” that he had cut his store's inventory by 55%, there was a gasp—even though he'd made the cuts gradually over the past nine years. While Bercu's radical pruning may make some booksellers uncomfortable, inventory is one of a few controllable costs. And given that flat has been the new up for the last few years, booksellers are becoming increasingly careful about what and how much they stock. Most have begun replacing orders of tens with fives, fives with threes and twos with one, or occasionally none.

Until shopping came to a standstill in September, some booksellers say they hadn't realized just how much dead wood weighed down their shelves. “Our inventory had really gotten inflated,” said Kathy Simoneaux, co-owner of Chester County Book and Music Company in Chester County, Pa. “We never had open-to-buys [budgeted purchasing plans]; we bought from our guts. And some buyers have guts from the 1990s.” In the fall, each store buyer was given a budget and began partnering with sales reps on the best titles to stock without going over it. And if something doesn't move, said Simoneaux, she's become much more unsentimental about returning it.

Some booksellers didn't initially want to make dramatic cuts, but pushed by noneconomic circumstances, honed their inventories with more of a curatorial eye for what their customers want. That's the case at Water Street Books in Exeter, N.H., where early last year the landlord took over one of the three store fronts that made up the store. As a result, owner Dan Chartrand reduced his inventory by 30%—40%, making deep cuts in areas like children's nonfiction and reference, where orders had migrated online. By year's end, Chartrand thanked his landlord for helping him get his turns up (the number of times inventory is sold and replaced) into the 2.75 to 3 range.

Emboldened by that success, Chartrand recently tried another tack to conserve cash when he opted to go on credit hold with five of the six largest publishers. By continuing to pay Random House, his largest vendor, Chartrand is hoping to keep his store fresh and time his other payments so that he can stretch his credit to the beginning of his second-biggest selling season, the period between Easter and Father's Day.

The downturn also inspired Ken White, general books manager at SFSU Bookstore in San Francisco, to contemplate a novel approach to his slowest season, the summer, when the store does one-tenth of its fall business. White isn't making appointments to see any reps for publishers with three-season years. “As we reduce staff, I need to be more available on the sales floor,” said White. “But it's also to reduce inventory.” Although the store's mix of academic titles with a strong trade presence will stay the same, SFSU customers in the future will find fewer trade hardcovers, university press books with short discounts and books from presses that don't offer free freight. Despite the store's strong academic bent, White plans to cut back on high-priced UP titles as well. “I worry,” he said, “that university presses are pricing their trade books out of the market.”

At A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wis., co-owner Sandy Torkildson said, “Inventory control isn't necessarily about cutting back, but how fast you reorder. In the past, I would have every single book by Margaret Atwood on hand. When you have backlist sold on the Internet for a penny plus shipping, you have to be careful. There are 100 copies of Atwood's Surfacing on the Internet at any one time. There might be a couple months when I'm out of Surfacing, and I can live with that.”

In recent years, A Room of One's Own has undergone several major changes, including dropping “Feminist Bookstore” from its name to reflect its expanded selection. Now Torkildson is planning another kind of expansion; next month she's going to start buying used books and shelve them side-by-side with new. She's already begun filling in sections like cooking and gardening with remainders. “I don't expect to have fewer books on the shelf,” she explained, “but the cost of my inventory will be less. My goal is to have a diverse inventory and not spend any more money.”

For Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer and inventory control manager at Boulder Bookstore in Boulder, Colo., which has cut inventory 15% over the past two years, the idea of filling in backlist with used books and remainders has lost its luster: “Used and remainders are underperforming.” While new book sales dropped slightly last year, used fell 8% and remainders 20%. Backlist, he said, has long been problematic at Boulder. “The only way we successfully sell it is to bring it to the front of the store and put a tag on it,” he said. “Now we have recommended cases in each room. They sell well, but the rest of the room doesn't.”

Although Kashkashian blames the Internet for skimming backlist sales, he suspects that free is even better. “At the library, it's Mardi Gras over there,” he said, “and it's full of backlist books.”

One bright spot for some booksellers wrestling with the sometimes Sisyphean task of maximizing sales without bulking up inventory was a test program that Random House conducted between August 1 and December 31. Using Above the Treeline to check sales and inventory levels, Random House tracked 50 select titles and made sure the test stores were never out of stock. Because of the program, Kashkashian said, he was able to have two in-store displays of Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running through much of the fall and sell 75 copies—without having more than eight or 10 copies in stock at any one time.

Inventory cuts often go hand in hand with staff reduction, usually by attrition or shortened hours. At Book Culture in New York City, owner Chris Doeblin offered buyouts to a couple of senior buying staff and began re-examining the store's approach to buying and returns. He decreased inventory by 25% and began returning books sooner, after a year rather than 18 months. At the same time, Doeblin moved out some remainders to make more space for strong-selling new books in sections like children's, travel and cooking, which brought in an additional $100,000 in sales. “We were just lax,” said Doeblin. “It's not a question of making less look like more, rather making it better.”

While many stores are removing shelving along with inventory, Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., is doing the opposite. There hasn't been much inventory to cut, because the store runs a daily hot list and checks inventory and sales on a weekly and monthly basis. “We always think in terms of books being nonreturnable, even though they are,” said general manager Linda Barrett Knopp, who stresses caution when ordering. The additional shelving is part of a redesign that will give the store a chance to display its increased sidelines. The makeover will be complete by the end of March.

As booksellers look ahead to the spring, many are cutting back. At Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., general manager Dale Szczeblowski said that when he reviewed the store's orders in November, he found that no cuts were needed. “We bought cautiously knowing things were slowing down,” he said. Still, he continues to watch each section's turns carefully, places new orders to take advantage of dating, and times returns with bills. Like his colleagues, he's aware that the name of the game is cash flow. But the result is also a store with more of the books that customers want.