Gualala Books -- which was on the verge of going belly up only 10 months ago -- is now preparing to celebrate its upcoming 10th anniversary in June. The small bookstore on the north coast of California has figured out the key to an independent's survival -- and others should take note. The public is often unaware that its local independent bookstore is even in trouble, then one day the customer is shocked to find the "out-of-business" sign posted in the window.

Owners Lynn Gigy and Barb Tatum made sure that would not be the case with Gualala Books of Gualala, Calif. When sales began to plummet to a point of no return in March of last year (down 21% from March '97), they made what Gigy called a "last ditch effort to appeal directly to our readers." They placed an ad in the local Independent Coast Observer, telling their customers exactly what the store offered-and confessing that sales were desperately needed to keep the store's doors open.

The results astonished booksellers throughout Northern California. Gualala's sales jumped 66% in the following month, and are still rising (up 33% for last year). "We not only reached our goal, we've gone way past it," Gigy told PW. Last week she and Tatum placed another ad, this time thanking their customers for keeping the store alive.

A general bookstore of 1000 sq. ft., located in the center of town, Gualala Books carries roughly 5000 titles. The owners have moved the store twice since leaving their professions in the Bay Area a decade ago (Gigy was a research psychologist, Tatum a schoolteacher). Their first site was only 400 sq. ft, but the store grew steadily, increasing its title base -- until suddenly, toward the end of '96, sales began to drop off. Gigy attributes the loss of sales to the shifting market of online purchases. "We're in fairly isolated country here, and there's lots of online shopping. It finally hit us, hit the book world."

Sales fell from $115,000 to $102,000 between 1996 and 1997, and by March 1998, the owners could barely pay the bills. With the active support from the community, the store was able to dramatically turn things around, finishing 1998 with $123,000 in sales -- its best year ever.

According to Gigy, B&N's purchase of Ingram -- and the overall environment of corporate takeovers -- may have ultimately helped in the revival of Gualala Books. "Once the word got out, our readers were really frustrated by the whole thing. We might be seeing a backlash against the chains."

In order to meet their customers' needs, Gigy and Tatum are now improving their Web site and selling books by e-mail. They have instituted a Loyal Locals frequent buyer program that provides a 10% discount on all books. The owners put a strong emphasis on local authors as well as small and independent presses. As their original ad successfully boasted: "We have access to all the books in print., Barnes &Noble, and Borders can do no better than that."

Gigy noted with irony that they used to try to look more successful than they really were. "Now we've learned to tell the truth to our customers," she explained. They plan to keep the public informed about sales from now on. "Local support can make a real difference in a store's actual survival," said Gigy. Struggling independents listen up; she knows of which she speaks.