Should I open a bookstore?
August 4, 2005 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Let's say I wanted to open my own business. Specifically a children's bookstore in a small college town in the northeast. Is this a good idea?

Where do I go to find information to help me determine the economic viability of such an operation? Are there any resoucres that would allow me to compare population, shopping patterns etc. for a venture like this? Anything that talks about bookstores in general as opposed to retail in particular? Can a bookstore make it in the days of Amazon?
posted by dhacker to Work & Money (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A great place to start is the Small Business Administration. Among other things, they can put you in touch with retired executives in your area who can offer just the kind of advice you're looking for.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:22 AM on August 4, 2005

My first thought would be, "how many parents/children are there in a college town?" Seems to me that there might not be that many, compared to other types of towns.

However, in my opinion, to survive against Amazon/Borders/B&N/Costco, you would just need to find a niche and serve that niche well. Sounds like you have the niche in mind, just make sure your location is a good one.
posted by spilon at 7:32 AM on August 4, 2005

My gut feeling is that kids books alone may not be enough. I think you might need to sell other books or toys as well. A college town is probably the right place for such an endeavor, especially if there are other yuppie shops nearby and a goodly amount of adult pedestrian traffic.

To do market research you might try talking to bookshop owners in other towns.
posted by caddis at 7:37 AM on August 4, 2005

Owning a bookstore is an extremely difficult way to make money -- being assistant manager of one many years ago cured me of any desire to try. That said, of course it's possible. I don't know if this is of any help, but it's out there; you may find this an interesting discussion (it's in the context of libertarian philosophy, but you can ignore that, I presume).
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on August 4, 2005

The kids' bookstores that do well seem to have a lot of events, storytimes, readings, etc. - community-oriented stuff. So if you want to survive in that niche, cultivate relationships with local librarians, writers, folklorists, musicians, and so forth. Become more than just a bookstore.
posted by matildaben at 8:10 AM on August 4, 2005

My first thought would be, "how many parents/children are there in a college town?" Seems to me that there might not be that many, compared to other types of towns.

The secretary-turned-elementary-education-major in my office buys a lot of children's books.

My guess is that (if you were to execute well) you could make such a business float (if you have no/few employees), but unless you do something really innovative, you won't make very much money.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:10 AM on August 4, 2005

A lot of children's books get passed down in families, so you have the initial purchase and then the trickle down for the rest of the kids. I was thinking this was a bad idea, as there aren't that many children in a college town -- but kwantsar got me thinking, education majors are forced to buy books! You'll have to figure out how many education majors are in this small college town to see viability, along with how many young families there are. The statistics are out there, you also want to look at how much these young families are making. If they're a bunch of grad students barely surviving, overpriced (yes you'll have to overprise) books aren't necessarily at the top of the list.

If I were you I'd find an upper-class, new suburban development along a major metropolitan area. You're bound to get a lot of stay at home or part-time moms and families that put education and getting their child ahead at the top of the list. Such things are good for your business.
posted by geoff. at 8:23 AM on August 4, 2005

Some good thoughts. Another data point - I don't need to make a living at this. I just want a business that can be somewhat profitable and not cause us to tear our hair out. When we sit around with other families we know in the area everyone always bemoans the lack of a good bookstore.
posted by dhacker at 8:27 AM on August 4, 2005

Location, location, location.

My parents owned a (hippie crystals and books) store for some time, and it wasn't until they moved to a more expensive location with actual passing foot traffic and a nearby parking lot that they started to make any money at all. Before then, it wasn't even break even.

Be prepared for making no money in the first year. You'll lose money, in fact, as you build your client base and wait for word to get out that you exist. Location can really help this.

Totally agree on the be-more-than-a-bookstore part. Readings, events, playtimes are good things. If you can cordon off a corner of the store so that kids can play safely while they're in there, parents will be happier to bring the kids in -- and will buy more.

Good luck -- I hope you're doing this for the love of kids and their education, and not to make your life's fortune.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 8:29 AM on August 4, 2005

I bought many, many children's books as an illustration major. So did my friends. "Well, I guess I'll just have Kraft dinner all week, I really need these hardcover William Steigs." You could easily prey on art students. (I'd have been happy to be preyed upon.)

One draw could be inviting illustrators and authors in the area to come talk, read, sign books, do something at your store -- contact an art school, ask for a list of alumni who live around you and are getting published, and give them a ring.
posted by Marit at 8:41 AM on August 4, 2005

I always wondered why bookstores don't make more connections with seems like such a good match, but it rarely seems to really happen.

What I'm talking about are things like writer's workshops on certain nights of the week or month, guest speakers for writers, etc. Things that writers would be interested in. Once that connection is made, those writers would be all over putting in extra effort to sell their books through a 'friendly' location, and all parties benefit.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:06 AM on August 4, 2005

I used to asst. manage a small bookstore. Be aware that the profit margin on books for independent booksellers is very low. Generally books are sold to bookstores at a 40% discount. The Barnes and Nobles of the world are eligible for volume discounts (plus perks!) that independent stores can't match. (That's why the big bookstores can discount their books below cover price, especially new releases.)

Find out who is buying books and where they are buying them in the area to get an idea of where you might carve out a niche.
posted by desuetude at 11:58 AM on August 4, 2005

The census web site will give you some basic demographic data on the number of children, income levels, that kind of info. I'm not sure how to turn that into information that you can use to make a decision, though.
posted by jefeweiss at 11:58 AM on August 4, 2005

Does your town have a pulblic library with a quality children's section? I remember going to the library all the time as a kid, but never buying any books.

Of course, we were poor.
posted by delmoi at 12:19 PM on August 4, 2005

You could check out back issues of Publishers Weekly (every year they have specific issues dedicated to the children's book business and right around June they have a look at bookselling in general.) Unfortunately, I don't find their online site that useful so no link. There's also Booksense, an organziation of independent booksellers. I know in and around Boston there seems to be a few new independent bookstores starting every year. I seem to remember an article about it that was passed around the office, but I can't locate it now. The main focus was Porter Square Books. If you have the time to do the research I would suggest searching for articles on that bookstore.
posted by rodz at 1:13 PM on August 4, 2005

I agree with Geoff that a college town might not be the right demographic.

Given the crushing pressure of the pricing and inventory of the big boxes (and I include Borders/Barnes & Noble) and internet discounters, to make a go of an independent kid's toy-and-book store, you need LOTS of stay-at-home moms with six-figure-earning husbands, and for those moms to have fairly similar tastes (not that diverse tastes are bad -- you just can't stock enough inventory to satisfy them).

Princeton is the only northeast standalone college town I can think of which might meet this requirement, but there are hundreds of exurbs and suburbs which would -- maybe you're close enough to one to make a go of it.
posted by MattD at 1:21 PM on August 4, 2005

Probably not a good way to make much money, but it's possible to do and maybe not lose too much.

Get in touch with the American Booksellers Association and New England Booksellers Association. As trade associations go, they are excellent ansd will provide meaningful help. Get help from the Small Business Administration and do a business plan. A good business plan should forecast fixed expenses, and show you how much inventory you have to sell to meet expenses.

Assess the competition. Go hang out at bookstores and see what they do well or poorly, and listen to the cutomers in the children's area.

I used to own a bookstore. Bookselling is still nicer than most businesses. Most sales reps truly love books and will want you to succeed. Some of them have excellent suggestions. Owning a small business is FAR more work than you imagine. But spending that time around books and readers is a pretty great way to live. Feel free to email me.
posted by theora55 at 1:57 PM on August 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

Since your zip says you're in MA, you might make the haul over to Cambridge some weekend and check out the Curious George Goes to Wordsworth Bookstore. It's a children's bookstore right next to Harvard, but in a place that gets tons of foot traffic. Here's where it is... Maybe someone around there could give you some advice.
posted by Moondoggie at 1:59 PM on August 4, 2005

you need LOTS of stay-at-home moms with six-figure-earning husbands, and for those moms to have fairly similar tastes

The mothers described above want whatever the NYTimes tells them they want, hooray or alas. Just as with their own reading. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to try to get the Harry Potterers to read, say, E. Nesbit . That's the value added, so of course you will need a pretty wide knowledge of the genre. Bear in mind that books are often the gift of first resort- thus, try to stock half forgotten classics from the parent's and grand parent's past. Nostalgia and all that. (As the examples are meant to illustrate, this can get wearisome in a PC heavy environment, but what the hell.)

Also, as suggested- author signings. I've seen block long lines of I-want-it-now matrons made docile in their hope for fifteen seconds with Helme Heine and de Brunhoff the younger. We're talking people who would normally chew out a shop clerk for insufficient foam on the double latte.

Oh, and PS- all children are gifted. Their parents will let you know this at every opprtunity. Just smile and play along.

(The above two cents courtesy relatives in the biz, and them in upscale neighbourhoods.)
posted by IndigoJones at 2:58 PM on August 4, 2005

Truly accept that you are gambling. You'll be investing large amounts of time and money into a venture which may fail for reasons that you never even considered.

Make sure that you have enough cash on hand to run the business at a loss for a year or more. The worst possible outcome is that you are forced to fold due to undercapitalization just before you would've broken into the black.

Be sure that you'll be happy with your use of the money. If you're going to spend the next ten years thinking sadly about how you wasted all that money, then running a business is not for you. If you'll simply be glad you tried, then you have the right mindset.

Be careful with how you finance it, as well. You're going to be taking all this money and gambling with it. If the business doesn't pan out, you don't want to lose friends or family who become resentful that you didn't work hard enough, or smart enough.

I think the business you're proposing is a fantsatic one... a children's bookstore is probably not the way to riches, but it sounds like something that could bring you much satisfaction and joy if it succeeds. I truly wish you the best!
posted by mosch at 3:11 PM on August 4, 2005

Williamstown, is that where you're thinking of having the store? I think your enemies are going to be parental density, Amazon, and a possible other bookstore that's sitting directly in your niche – but there aren't any big box bookstores very close, as a general knowledge of the cultural predilections of Western Massachusetts plus an internet check seems to bear out. Play up the art angle and bag as many nostalgic student shoppers as you can, I'd say.
posted by furiousthought at 4:49 PM on August 4, 2005

I don't know...I'm an upper income mom living in a small college town in the northeast with two kids and I rarely buy books. Because it is a college town everyone is sort of liberal and we like to support our public schools and our public library- so my kids' school has a great library and our public library is super. Plus people move in and out of town a lot - and there are constant tag sales and lots of selling off of the kids' books before moving. So the place is just floating in books - for kids and big people. That's just my experience. Your idea - at least in my town - is a kind of a Coals to New Castle notion.
posted by trii at 6:33 PM on August 4, 2005

In the vein of Moondoggie's post, you might also check out Stella Bella toys in Inman Square, as another example of a store that is (presumably) making a profit.
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 6:56 PM on August 4, 2005

Many people all over the world have been dreaming of owning a store as some kind of a path for financial freedom. I could never imagine a worse idea, unless you have some unique hook. Especially today when commerce moves away from the streets
posted by growabrain at 8:32 PM on August 4, 2005

theora55 is correct, get in touch with the ABA. They offer courses at many different levels for people thinking of opening bookstores. It isn't an easy business, but it can be quite fulfilling, and even more so when you get to watch kids grow up and expand their horizons from the books you've suggested.
posted by OmieWise at 5:33 AM on August 5, 2005

I used to live in Cambridge, MA so I am familiar with both Curious George and Stella Bella. The thing they clearly have going for them is population density. FuriousThought is correct, the closest big box bookstore is a 30 minute drive away. Locals are very supportive of local business so thats a plus. I know that we buy books all the time - we never go to a birthday party with a toy, always a book, and everyone seems to appreciate that.

I guess another danger is the fallacy that "everyone is like us".

Thanks everyone for the suggestions and insight.
posted by dhacker at 8:19 AM on August 5, 2005

One more place to look in Cambridge is Henry Bear's Park, a toy store with a strong book section (full disclosure: I work there part-time). We have a weekly story time, with local authors coming to read once a month.

I used to live in Northampton, and watched two established bookstores fail while I was there, one survive, and one new bookstore open. The two that remain have at least adequate children's sections, while two children focused stores both have pretty good children's sections. It might be valuable to check out those two stores, Mulberry Tree and A2Z Science and Learning, and see what makes them tick. Both have been around over ten years.
posted by SobaFett at 6:03 PM on August 5, 2005

I'd reccomend reading "The Kings English" by Betsy Burton. The Kings English was a quarter mile from the house I grew up in in Salt Lake City. I spend many afternoons there and had a job filing orders and catalogs and hauling out the shipping boxes there as Freshman in high school. Betsy Burton was and is the owner.

The book is a memoir of sorts and I think would give you a good feeling of what its like to be an independant bookseller. It certainly sounds like it can be a rewarding life, but not in a financial sense.
posted by Good Brain at 7:31 PM on August 5, 2005

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