Feng shui is all the rage, and now booksellers are also analyzing their physical surroundings in an effort to create a more harmonious environment charged with positive energy. Joci Tilsen and Jim Bour, co-owners of The Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn., claim that, by re-arranging their store using feng shui-like concepts, they have increased their sales 9% and cut expenses by 16%. "It's feng shui with a twist—for profit, rather than for aesthetics," Tilsen told PW.

Tilsen and Bour have owned The Valley Bookseller since 1998. In an effort to better capture the St. Croix River Valley tourist trade, the couple moved in July 2000 from their original location in a 2,000-square-foot space in a strip mall to a 3,500-square-foot space in a historic building on Stillwater's main street. It seemed the perfect expansion. The bookstore was now located just a stone's throw from the St. Croix River, and the extra space allowed the owners to increase inventory from 16,000 titles in the previous location to 23,000 titles in its new, two-level location.

It was a disaster. "We all believed the move would be a boom for us, but it didn't happen," said Tilsen. "Sales never even came close to our financial projections. They didn't even come close to the previous location. By August 2001, we knew we were in trouble. We lost a ton of money, not even counting our investment in our new space. We were losing money every day."

Drastic Measures

Drastic times call for drastic measures. The couple consulted with their financial consultant to help them turn their ailing business around. They were advised to re-negotiate their lease, cut expenses and cut staff positions. But, for Tilsen and Bour, those rather obvious suggestions were not enough. "We also had to re-envision how we used the space in the store."

Last year, the couple sought advice from the retail store designer who had consulted with them before the move. They examined which sections were most profitable, and moved those sections to the front of the store. "The sections that were doing well, we moved to where these books could do even better, by making them more accessible to the customer," Tilsen said.

At the same time, Tilsen and Bour cut their inventory from 23,000 titles to 17,000 titles, "which is where it should be," said Tilsen. "We realized that we had to say goodbye to product that doesn't move—and relocate the slow-moving book sections to the back of the store."

But shifting books around and cutting back on inventory was not all the store co-owners did to make their business more viable. They also created a more organic business by integrating operations traditionally done in the back room into the retail storefront. "We completely cut out the back room," Tilsen explained. "Back rooms are nice, but they don't make money." They convinced their landlord to lower their rent by giving him the option to re-rent that 350-square-foot back room space separately.

Tilsen and Bour wanted to create a harmonious balance among staff, patrons, space and products. First, the owners moved the ordering section to the front of the store. The staff person responsible for ordering books and other products could perform those responsibilities, yet back up the bookseller at the main cash register when needed. The second cash register area was also used as the returns/receiving desk. The clerk responsible for taking care of receiving and returns could also back up the bookseller at that cash register during crunch times. "Streamlining operations by making better use of our space and our people in this way cut one-and-a-half staff positions; improved customer service; lowered our rent; and helped us manage our inventory better—we now had more people out there with the books," Tilsen said.

Next, the couple considered how best to connect the bookstore to its physical location. "How could we bring what people love about the St. Croix River Valley inside the store?" Tilsen recalled. The store's owners placed an aviary with 15 exotic birds inside the store. They also installed a ramp with a nautical theme connecting the store's two levels. A deck was created at the back of the building where people could sit and read or gaze at the St. Croix River. And, in a salute to Stillwater's past as a mill town, a toy train on an elevated track wends its way through the children's section. For a virtual tour, including a 360-degree panoramic view of the store's interior, visit the store's Web site at www.valleybooks.com.

One year later, Tilsen reports dramatic results. Sales jumped 9% in 2003 from 2002, while expenses dropped 16%. "We were able to turn our bottom line around from a very bad negative to a positive. I have a better store, I have better customer service, I get things faster, because I can pay for them. The store is in the black—and that's huge."

"Is the energy better, so that people are buying? I don't know." Said Tilsen. "I can't tell you if it's the feng shui, but I can tell you that taking a hard look at where you can cut expenses and increase sales, while maintaining the beauty and ambiance of the bookstore, is what it takes. That's all we did."