One of the first decisions you will need to make when starting up your bookstore is whether or not you are going to be a specialist retailer of certain types of publication.
If you have an interest in a certain field, be it anything from the military to pets, you may be tempted to follow your instincts and open up a relevant store.
However, you must think of financial realities before opening up a specialised store. How many other stores are there like yours in the local area? Is there enough public interest in the market you would like to cover? How well are you connected to your potential audience – for example, if you want to open a religious bookstore, are you involved with your local church or mosque? Do you have lots of contacts in the community?
“There are a number of specialisms within bookselling, and you can clearly build up a very loyal clientele if you are a specialist, also in mail order, but general bookshops can also do well,” explains Meryl Halls of the Booksellers Association.
“We don’t really have a party line on this – if someone has a passion for a subject, they would probably do well, but they have to be careful that their potential audience is large enough to support the business, and that there are not too many others in the field.
“Children’s booksellers are probably the most successful sub-group, and they sell not only to children and parents, but also to schools.”
However, Ian and Gillian Knight, who run MilitaryHistoryBooks.com, are adamant that price concerns mean that specialising in a certain field is a must for new bookstores.
“A specialist book business is, in our opinion, the only viable way for individuals to exist in book retailing,” claims Ian. “Small retailers cannot compete with the large multiple, or Amazon, for general/popular titles – after all, would you pay £16 for the latest Harry Potter at a small independent versus £10 in Waterstones or £8 on Amazon?
“The specialist book business gets to know its customers, anticipates their wants and proactively presents its ware to them. They, in turn, rely on it to find what they want – large multiples only want to handle in print, easily obtainable titles.”
On almost every high street you walk down, you will see a branch of Waterstones or another large book chain. Aided by the end of fixed prices set by publishers, large chains can buy large amounts of sought-after books and sell them on at bargain prices – something that traditional stores, now tucked in side-streets or alleyways, find it hard to compete with.
However, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. Where chains offer the warehouse approach to bookselling, independent retailers can offer the friendly, focused customer service and the specialised, unusual books that many customers look for.
Many stores have found it appealing to become specialised sellers, attracting customers with the promise that they will contain a wider range of books on a certain subject than the big chains. If the market is big enough, you can certainly steal a march on Waterstones and co. by offering discerning readers what they are looking for.
“Customers for specialist books are not particularly price sensitive so good margins can be made on scarce books – albeit with a higher overhead for the effort of finding them,” explains Ian.
Saying that, you needn’t be scared into becoming a specialised seller just through fear of the big chains. Why not offer the same kind of store but with a more intimate feel? After all, although branches Waterstones can be pretty comprehensive, you are unlikely to find anything quirky or unexpected among the bland-looking shelves.
Create a bright, spacious store with comfortable seating area for customers to flick through their finds. Consider offering drinks or snacks to help generate extra revenue and make visitors feel welcome and valued. Tea and coffee making facilities shouldn’t cost you too much and would act as a nice touch to those stepping in off the street.