I am a bookseller. I scour Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness, endless catalogs, Facebook, and Twitter for booksy news. I spend endless hours before and after work striving to be a better bookseller. In addition, belonging to bookseller’s trade organizations has put me in the company of people who love what they do, have learned things that I need to know, and have weathered storms I may still face. They don’t look at me with eyebrows lowered as a threat to their own livelihood. Instead, they see me as a comrade, a co-conspirator, a friend. Because we live all over the nation, we don’t infringe upon each other’s territory, instead we freely “steal” each other’s best ideas.
We jump into the conversation wherever it happens and if we recognize the need to tap into the collective wisdom of a gaggle of booksellers, we think there could possibly be someone else out there who could benefit from ours. OK, maybe not from our wisdom, but certainly from our mistakes.
Our first crazy inkling about opening an independent bookstore came a long time ago when my brother-in-law, a co-conspirator loaned me his copy of his 1996 Manual on Bookselling: Practical Advice for the Bookstore Professional, fifth edition, a publication of the American Booksellers Association. In that book, as the cover states, “65 industry professionals shared their expertise in all aspects of bookselling”. Many of those professionals have now retired, but a surprising amount of their wisdom is still relevant to booksellers in the 21st century. The book told us how to find a good location, and though it took us two tries due to our own stubbornness, we found it. We developed a business plan that a local banker could embrace. We took the book’s advice in finding someone to design our logo, and we plugged in the formulas for calculating how many books we should order and how many shelves we should build.
Sure, we no longer keep track of our inventory with a pencil (well, at least most of us don’t), and we can now offer an ebook as well as a paper edition, but the principles of a healthy bookstore are still in inventory management, increasing margin, keeping shipping costs down, keeping staff healthy and happy, and recommending books to customers every day, so 80% of that book is still very useful though there has been no sixth edition.
Inklings is celebrating our 13th anniversary this week. If we had decided that we knew everything about bookselling in 2000 and put our heads down and pushed forward without the help of our colleagues, I would be unemployed today. In addition to referring to “the book,” we attend every possible educational session that is offered by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the American Booksellers Association. The voice of Avin Dominitz, former CEO of the ABA that I heard over ten years ago, still rings in my ears emphasizing the tremendous difference that a 2% increase in margin can make to the bottom line. I learn from each presenter, the authors, and especially from my fellow booksellers. I love the round table format where I’ve learned how to buy remainders, sell used books, and plan a great event, all from the best industry professionals. Sometimes those round tables are laden with food as we share a meal and swap stories.
So, when I’m asked to participate in the ABACUS study, an annual survey of and for booksellers, I do it. Some years my statistics have been embarrassingly abysmal, but now over many years, I not only can see how things have changed and mostly improved, but I can compare my store to other anonymous but similar stores and see where we can tighten our belt or maybe take a new risk. When Michael Norris from SIMBA asks for a few minutes of my time, I give it. The process of analyzing my numbers teaches me a lot, and the results when compiled encourage me in the things we did right and challenge me to grow in new areas. I probably wouldn’t take the time to crunch the numbers if left to my own devices. I am, after all, a word person.
Though numbers are not my forte, I have found that I can’t survive in this tight-margin business without the help of my colleagues. I’m making plans right now to attend the PNBA tradeshow and educational sessions in Portland next month. I can’t afford to go and can’t afford the time away, but I can’t afford not to go. I’ll come home with a notebook full of new ideas to try out and a realization that there are a lot of other insane, yet happy people in this shaky business and together, we still believe we can change the world.
Susan Richmond owns Inklings Bookshop in Yakima, WA, open for 13 years. Aren’t we all lucky! If you can’t make it to Yakima to visit the store in person, you can enjoy this virtual visit from our archives.