Yes, is the answer, it is a dream job. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have worked in my dream job of bookselling for twenty years. However, there are the challenges and key things that you should consider before signing that lease. There are already hundreds of independent bookshops throughout the UK and Ireland, how they came to be opened and how they are run varies considerably. It’s impossible to put together a definitive list of “must know” or “must do” as each location, person and has their own specifics. These are my thoughts.
The location of the shop will be critical to your success. Choosing a unit on a street or road that has a consistent footfall will help ensure that your bookshop is as close to the customer as you budget allows. If the rent seems cheap, watch out. Most likely it is because shoppers do not pass by your front door. Choose the location with precision. It’s all about ensuring you are in the optimal place to attract existing book buyers, to pull them away from buying their books somewhere else and attracting new customers.
I would not recommend opening near another Indie bookshop, you could be making life tough for yourself and a possible future friend in the trade. The local market potential may not be enough to support two outlets and you’d be asking the local book buyers to split their loyalties. In the end neither shop may prosper. Where I do see the possibility of close proximity to another Indie bookshop working is when you are offering something very different and complimentary to the existing bookshop. For example, you specialize in science fiction or children’s books which allows book buyers to shop in both. There are plenty of ideal locations, in neighbourhoods without an Indie and ripe for an independent bookshop.
Make sure there is enough of a population for you to sell books to. It is possible to set up in a small village and become one of the destination shops for that area. Mainstreet Trading Books in The Borders in Scotland has famously succeeded with this strategy.
I believe there are two choices when it comes to location. Either you go to where the customers are already shopping or need to give them an obvious reason for them to come to you.
Changing buying habits
For your bookshop to succeed you need book buyers to change their buying habits. Do they currently buy in the local Waterstones, Dubrays or Easons? Perhaps they buy online. Or are you going to find new book buyers? In all three cases you are asking shoppers to change their book buying habits. You need to understand clearly how you are going to achieve that and an operating strategy to make it happen. Asking a book buyer to change from buying their book in a chain which has thousands of books, to your bookshop with most likely hundreds of titles in stock, needs a clear strategy. Asking them to stop buying online, where the range is vast and they’ll most likely find the book cheaper than your bookshop, is a challenge although not insurmountable. Finding the book buyers that have never bought a book and introducing them to the amazing world of reading is hugely rewarding albeit testing. If there is already a bookshop in the town, have a solid strategy how you are going to persuade book buyers to stop going there and shop with you. And to keep coming back. Are you aiming to do all three? If so how. Know who your customer is. You cannot be all things to all people. Set out your stall and be confident with it. Remember good feelings don’t pay the rent.
Why does the town, village or street need a bookshop?
Know why you are opening, passion only goes so far. You need to identify a gap in the market that you feel you can feel either by offering something different or something better. Have a clear idea of what you are selling. Just because you and your friends believe the area or town needs a bookshop might not be enough of a business reason to open one.
It’s very hard to do it alone.
If you can, get someone to take care of all the paperwork. You are the face of the bookshop and as such you will be key to the reason why people will buy from your shop rather than online or with a competitor. You should be on the shop floor talking to customers, delivering your retail strategy personally.
Other random thoughts
• Look at the start-up costs and double it. Then work out how many books you need to sell to pay those costs.
• Set your staff budget and don’t exceed that.
• Work in a bookshop before you make any decisions. Ideally work for a few days or even take a part time job in an independent bookshop and get to know the quirks of the industry.
• Be prepared to personally work the top two busiest days and beware these might be Saturday and Sunday. This might seem obvious, but it means no more saying yes to wedding invites, party invites to the Outer Hebrides and weekends away in Paris.
• Go to industry events such as London Book Fair and chat with other booksellers, publishers and generally anyone who might have tips and ideas of why they believe independent bookshops work for them.
• Prepare your business plan on the principle that for six or seven months of the year you will pay out more than you take in. Your bookshop should take in more in the other months to put cash in the bank to pay the bills in the lean months.
• Cash in the bank is not the same as net profit.
• Write down all the reasons for opening the bookshop and revisit them on a regular basis to see how relevant they are.
• Think about the timing. The peak season for book sales is September to December.
I would strongly recommend buying the guide from the Booksellers Association on starting and running a bookshop. It is the definite guide to what you need know about opening a bookshop. I would also highly recommend that you attend the Introduction to Bookselling course. Most of the fantastic successful and award winning bookshop of the past 10 or 15 years have done both. More details here.
I am hoping that some of my thoughts will help you decide when, where and how to open a bookshop. Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee it will work and cannot accept any responsibility that such a venture will succeed. What I do know is that it is a combination of drive, determination, passion and luck to have a chance to be a great independent bookshop for the next generation.