How to Set Up Your Own Used Bookshop
Operating a used book store is a lot like owning a recycling centre – not too glamorous until you take a look at the owner’s bank account.
This is an ideal “absentee owner” type of business, or a small investment type business for someone to start while holding down a regular, full time job. The type of person “best-suited” to running a successful used book store, is the man or woman who loves to read, has collected books over the years, and enjoys associating with people of similar interests.
Start up risks are rated high, with the average time period needed to become firmly established, of about 3 years. After that becoming established period, however, you should be able to enjoy ownership of a business without extreme market fluctuations, plus an income close to £50,000 per year or more.
Ideally, a used book store will need a market population of at least 50,000 persons to support it. Try to locate your store in a high traffic area, as near as possible to a college or university campus. Something to bear in mind is the shopping habits of the average used book buyer. First, he’s a browser. He notices your shop, drops in and begins looking around to see what kind of books you have available. If he spots something that really interests him, he’ll probably buy then and there. If not, and provided you’ve made him feel comfortable this first time in your store, he’ll be back – dropping in to browse whenever he’s in the area.
Shopping centres are excellent locations for book stores. Locations near other, or “new” book stores are also very good – if the buyer doesn’t find that he wants in the other book shops, he’ll look in your shop. Grocery shop areas are generally poor locations for book stores of any kind.
It’s important that there be a lot of casual strollers in your location area, and that you encourage these people to drop in, and browse around. If you want the entire front of your store to be a shop window … take pains to arrange your window display in an uncluttered manner, showing the kinds of books you have. However, a window display is not really necessary. More important is a window for the passers-by to see into your shop. At any rate, if you do go with a window display, keep it low – never more than 36 inches high – leaving a lot of room for the people passing by to see into your shop and notice the people browsing through your books. We know of one successful operator who had members of his family, relatives and friends, purposely “browsing” through his store, just to project that kind of image for the store.
Once you have your store location selected, paint the entire interior in a dark, warm colour, such as mahogany. Install a lighter shade of indoor/outdoor carpeting throughout. The lighting should be indirect, and somewhat subdued, to give your store a warm feeling. Locate your till parallel to one of the side walls .. you don’t want it blocking or guarding the easy entry or exit from your store. You want your customers to feel comfortable just visiting the store. In other words, do everything you can to encourage the browsers, because it’s been proven time and time again that the browsers are the book buyers. Allow the people to come and go generally as they please; to pick up and thumb through the books that interest them; to read them, and “fall in love” with them. These will be your real book buyers.
Your book shelves should run along each side wall, and across the back of the store. Don’t build them more than six feet high. Partition these shelves into sections about four feet wide, and at the top of each section, place a sign indicating the general subject matter of the books to be found in that section.Paper the walls of your store, from the top of your book shelves to the ceiling with posters – colourful and descriptive travel posters, broadway show billboards, concert posters and full colour dust jackets from books that are perennially popular.
The next thing is to build or buy half shelves, tables and revolving racks for other or more books. The half shelves – about 4 feet wide by 4 feet high and similar to book cases in your home – should be located at right angles to your wall shelves, and in the rear of your store. The tables should be about 3 feet wide by 4 feet long, and about 30 inches high. These also should be located at right angles to your wall shelves, but closer to the front of your store. A revolving wire rack, to hold currently popular or specially featured books, and located at the front of your store, will be a special extra merchandising effort that’ll really pay off in the sales of your books.
In locating your half shelves and tables down the middle of your store, stagger them – one 3 feet from the wall shelves, the next one 6 feet out, then 4 feet and so on. This will allow more people to be “seen” in your store; cut down on the appearance of a formal or military layout, and project a more casual atmosphere for browsing – and this is precisely what you want. This kind of arrangement will cost you some space, but it’ll be worth it with increased traffic.
Another merchandising idea that works well is a couple of revolving wire racks on wheels – these you push outside and position near the entrance to your store. You can feature popular paperbacks, and a few over-size hard cover books with bright, flashy colours in these racks.
Your store hours should match those of your neighbours … in fact, you could jump off to a quick start, by opening a half hour earlier than your neighbours. Use this opening half hour to take care of paperwork, and get yourself organised for the day. When the early shoppers see you’re open early, they’ll begin coming into your store, to browse and kill time, while they wait for the other stores to open.
If you cannot be there to open the store, then hire part time help. First off, write out a list of duties you want each assistant to perform while he’s on shift. In addition to taking care of sales transactions, you might want him to do some stocking, dusting, cleaning, sorting and pricing … Regardless, you’ll have fewer problems and enjoy bigger profits if you formally write these shift duties out, and put them as job requirements, and explain them when you interview for hired help. Look for, and try to hire only book lovers who are personable, outgoing, and have some sort of business aptitude. You then train these people in all phases of your operation, with the thought in mind that they will run the store in your absence, and eventually be your store manager. The best way to find such people is by talking with your customers, observing which might be willing to work for you, and which of them might best fulfil your needs.
You’ll need an outside sign for your store – preferably one that hangs at right angles to the flow of traffic in front of your store. Many successful used book stores utilise hand carved wooden signs, while others display painted signs with calligraphic lettering. By all means, spend the extra money to have spotlights installed on your shop front, focusing on your store sign. Backlit plastic signs just don’t create the comfortable image necessary for the success of a good used book store.
Newspaper and/or broadcast advertising will be much more expensive than it’s worth. Your best bet is to create a comfortable feeling and open invitation for browsers, price your stock fairly, concentrate on personal service, and let word of mouth advertising and time do the rest. Even so, you should run an ad in the yellow pages. Perhaps an ad in the college paper, and from time to time, special sales ads in your local shopping newspapers. Inexpensive flyers inviting people in to exchange books, or to just browse, can be printed at your local quick print shop and handed out or placed under the window wipers of cars in the larger shopping centre car parks. Advertising, and special sales during holiday periods, such as Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are generally quite effective in bringing new customers into your store.
Most used book store entrepreneurs use their own book collections as a start-up inventory base. In addition, talk to as many neighbours, friends and relatives as possible for the donation of books. Then start making the rounds of all the garage sales and flea markets. You should have at least 10,000 books in stock when you open for business – and that’s a lot of books. Search for books to sell – those you can buy for 25p or less – in all the charity shops, car boot sales, jumble sales, bazaars, etc.
You might place a small ad in your newspaper, announcing that you’re looking for good used books to buy. Generally, you evaluate a book according to the price you think you can get it for in your store. Then you subtract two thirds of that total, and offer that as your “buying” price. Always separate the books you feel certain you can sell from those you aren’t sure about. It’s going to take a while for you to become proficient as a book buyer, but with practice and some experience, you’ll quickly develop the “intuition” you need to realise a profit on every book you buy. Always flip through the pages of each individual book, and be sure of its condition before you quote a price. In many instances, you’ll also find that out of a box of 25 books, you’re only interested in buying 10. The seller will generally be wanting to get rid of his books, now. And for a couple of pounds more than your “bid price” on the 10 books you want, he’ll let you have all 25 of them. This is like a windfall to you, because you can always use the “unwanted” books as leader items or extras to generate traffic during two for one sales, all books on a certain table for just 50p each, or your choice of free books for everyone coming in to browse on a certain day.
You should carry hard cover as well as paperback books. Pay no more than 25% of the new price for a mint condition used hard cover book, and buy only those you are certain can be sold in your store. Pay no more than 10% of the new price for a mint condition used paperback, and steer clear of the hard core sexually oriented books.
Visit the libraries and book stores in your area. Observe that the people are interested in reading, and what they’re checking out or buying. Stock your store with these kinds of books. Below is a listing of the kinds or types of books you should consider stocking in your used book store:
BUSINESS BOOKS: These should include books on leadership, career advancement, time management and people management.
HOW-TO BOOKS: These should include all the self help and self improvement manuals you can find – mail order, auto repair, carpentry, metalwork, home building, gardening, and business start up.
COOK BOOKS: You’ll probably be surprised at how many people buy books relating to the culinary arts. A well stocked cookbook section will mean definite profits for you. Forget about books on dieting, home economics, and etiquette – these books just don’t do well in used book stores.
SPECIAL INTEREST BOOKS: Watch and listen to the people of your area. Be on the lookout for people into World War history, aviation, sports perfection, movies, and just plain old book collectors.
PAPERBACKS: Women’s romance, science fiction, mysteries, and historical novels are all good movers – currently enjoying an upsurge in popularity and sales. These will be the best movers in your inventory, so develop good sources of supply, and price them for fast sales.
Building and maintaining your inventory, while continuing to rapidly turn that inventory over, can be handled in a number of different ways. It’s not a good idea for you to exchange two or three of your customer’s books for one of your own. There’s always a variance in price, plus you may not want the type of books your customer is offering to trade. The most feasible plan seems to be to give the customer a “credit” for each book you buy from him. Simply have a supply of business cards promoting your store, printed at your quick print shop. On the back of the card, have them print something along these lines:
“The bearer of this card is entitled to ________ pence credit on 50% of the listed purchase price of any book at This Book Store.”
Your signature follows.
Then, when someone brings in a couple of books to sell, you pay him in credit chits, marking in the amount and signing your name on the card. An easier way might be to have your signature printed on the cards when you order them – you or a clerk would simply fill in the credit amount, and stamp the card.
Many used book stores add to their income potential by adding tape cassettes lending libraries. These are real money makers, with a kind of service that lends out “books on tape”, and special learning programmes where portions of the rental fee applies to the purchase of the original tape cassette. A great many used book stores add to their income by running mail order book selling operations in addition to the retail business. This is a natural, either for a retail operator wanting to expand his market or a mail order operator wanting to increase his income.
A word of caution: Though you must project an open, comfortable invitation to browsers and would-be book buyers, you must also inconspicuously guard against shop lifters and outright thieves. The best bet is to place mirrors strategically throughout the store so that you can see your customers from the checkout desk at all times. Your smaller, and more expensive books should be kept up front so that you can see them and what the customers are doing with them, without seeming to be guarding them. There are a number of theft prevention gadgets and devices available, but even more important is alert hired help that can keep an eye on the customers without making them feel they’re being watched.
The risks of starting a used book store are high for the dreamer unaware that it’s just another retail business and should be handled as such. Well organised and intelligently operated used book stores are very stable, and they do provide a very comfortable income for the owner operator willing to persist through the start-up period. This can be the kind of business you’ve always dreamed of owning, but you’ll have to have the patience to let it grow and the perseverance to see it through to its ultimate success. With these thoughts in mind, I say reach for the sky and may the angels of paradise always be smiling upon you with endless good fortune!