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Running a bookshop in the digital age

A love of reading could have you considering whether running a bookshop is a worthy venture.

No one buys a bookshop purely to make money. So, if the bottom line is all that concerns you then look away now.

However, running an independent bookstore still holds a special appeal and there are still plenty of success stories in the industry

Bookshop owners often make big sacrifices to be surrounded by paperbacks and hardbacks all day. Not that it's impossible to make money selling books independently - but you must be able to deal with the more mundane aspects of running a business.

As the Booksellers Association website says: "Your love and knowledge must be combined with business acumen if your bookshop is to succeed."

Threats to independent booksellers abound and this is truer than ever in the current retail climate.

Internet shopping has taken off in this sector like no other - over a third of book purchases are now made online. Dedicated online retailers such as Amazon can pass savings made from lower overheads onto customers, who can also buy from the comfort of their home.

In recent years high street giants such as Waterstones - who also now enjoy significant online sales - have accounted for a growing share of the market, while supermarkets have also muscled in on the act, intensifying competition further. 

But what about the kindle...

Then, of course, there's the Kindle. However, this online used-book retailer is bullish about the future of the traditional, paper-based format.

Internet shopping has taken off in this sector like no other - over a third of book purchases are now made online.

Together, they account for almost half of the UK's book market. The abolition of the net book agreement in 1997 was a major catalyst for the rise of the chains.

Suddenly, shops were allowed to sell stock at below cover price, enabling bigger enterprises to take advantage of economies of scale and undercut the smaller operator, often through special offers.

A book buying revival 

Nevertheless, forecasts of the independent bookshop's demise are premature and there appears to be a resurgence in book buying from independent retailers.

Figures from Nielsen Book Research show that in the first half of 2016, Britons bought more than 78 million books, approximately 4 million more than the same period in 2015. 

Their research also states that sales are up more than 9% and sales of printed books are growing faster than ebooks for the first time in a over a decade.

People "like the idea of being a bookseller", says Michael Neil, managing director of book wholesaler Bertrams. "It's seen as a noble thing to do.

"As the chain bookstores have consolidated, there are opportunities for good local 'indies' to step in. There is a thirst for authenticity, and shopping at an indie bookstore seems to be part of that."

Buying online is convenient if you're simply ordering the latest John Grisham thriller, but you're perhaps less likely to unearth an unknown gem. Wandering around a shop, reading blurbs and leafing through the pages of obscure novels is a three-dimensional experience only.

Harnessing the web

Similarly, there is little sign that people are willing to give up reading books in paper form in favour of downloading them onto electronic readers - although improving technology might eventually win people over.

Far from fearing technology, some independent bookshops harness the internet to sell books, increasing the scope for specialisation considerably. You might only have a handful of customers living within a small radius if you exclusively sell books about martial arts in a small-town bookshop; sell them on the internet and you can sell to martial-arts aficionados across the globe.

Small bookshops specialising in a particular subject or antiquarian books enjoy substantial repeat business from enthusiasts and students of the specialism, so it doesn't matter if they can't afford the same prime locations as large stores, as they don't rely on passing trade. Often, the subject is something close to the heart of the owner, who can trump the chains on customer service by offering informed advice.

Independent bookstores can also compete on price with the chains by selling second-hand books.

True, you can't beat a shiny new paperback, but the experience of reading is essentially the same regardless of whether the book is new or second-hand. People who wouldn't contemplate buying second-hand clothes, furnishings or electronics are often happy to purchase used books.

Do you even need to compete on price with the large chains? An independent bookseller in south-east London decided that books could be 'reassuringly expensive'.

Crockatt & Powell, for example,  had an ironic "buy one, get nothing free, and no money off" offer on the final Harry Potter novel, pledging £9 of each sale to the local primary school's library.

Could you run a bookshop?

Bookshops are tranquil environments, so you could be forgiven for thinking that anyone with retail experience could run one. The Booksellers Association, however, thinks sector-specific experience goes a long way.

"The best way to learn about bookselling is to work in a bookshop," its website says. "Even a week or two can give you a sense of the day-to-day realities of the trade, such as dealing with all those unfamiliar faces and demands, working on a till, ordering stock, looking after the existing stock, handling invoices - experiences that are impossible to achieve in any other way."

You might not be lucky enough to found a new bookshop chain, but it seems that it's still possible to run your own business, surround yourself with books and make enough money to survive. For some people, that is all they have ever wanted.

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Jon Neale

About the author

Jon is a freelance journalist and has done a substantial amount of work for Dynamis. Before going freelance he worked at Estates Gazette, and has written a number of articles for the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, Retail Week, The Grocer, Square Mile, and Regeneration.


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