A New Bookstore Poses a Buying Challenge

Alison Morris - August 29, 2007

Recently our store embarked on an interesting experiment that’s forced me to stretch my skills as a buyer. We’ve opened an additional small bookstore (approx. 600 square feet), in an office building, where we’re hoping its 1,000+ employees will be keen to buy books. The building that houses our "mini Booksmith" is the lovely new headquarters for a large insurance company, whose employees had previously been working in three different Boston-area locations. When the company merged everyone onto one site they conducted a "What conveniences would you like to see in your place of employment?" poll and "a bookstore" was apparently among the most popular responses.

Our "mini Booksmith" space is immediately adjacent to the building’s cafeteria and also carries some snacks and beverages provided by the contracted cafeteria company, to appease employees’ hunger pangs during the hours the cafeteria is closed. In order to streamline the check-out process, everything (food, books, gifts) is rung in on the cafeteria system’s cash registers and watched over by the cafeteria staff. In ringing in our store’s sales the cashiers press a button for either "books" or (in the case of our non-book items) a button for "gifts," then enter the price as it’s marked. As this doesn’t give us a ton of sales information, one of our hardy booksellers (the wonderful Lisa Fabiano) will be doing frequent hand-counts of the store’s inventory, receiving new stock as it comes in, shelving books, and rearranging displays. She’ll be reporting specific title sales and customer requests to Lorna and me, so that we can then order and reorder books accordingly.

As a buyer I’ve found it rather tricky to figure out what children’s books to include in the inventory of this store. I’ve had to take a gander at the interests and reading desires of 1,000+ people who may have relatively little in common, apart from the fact that they all work in the same large building. No doubt their pay scales are very different, their levels of higher education probably run the gamut, their interests, their hobbies, their home lives, everything (with the exception of their levels of Red Sox devotion) is likely to be quite diverse. I’ve tried to imagine the occasions these employees are most likely to be buying for and the ages their children and grandchildren are likely to be. We’ve all agreed it’s important that the store contain enough "classics" to immediately suggest that we’ve got a good selection (people generally judge this based on their ability to recognize an adequate number of titles they know and love), but not be so heavy on familiar titles that it seems we’ve got nothing new to offer, or that we have no distinct personality. (In other words, I don’t want us to resemble your average airport bookstore.)

The strangest part of this venture has been choosing books for a children’s section that’s not likely to see many children. (How weird.) The trickiest part has been buying for a store that won’t (except during Lisa’s hours) be staffed by knowledgeable booksellers. For the past nine years I’ve been wonderfully spoiled by the opportunity to buy a wide range of books in terms of both oddity and obscurity with the relative confidence that we’ll sell most of them, because our staff of booksellers and I will read them (or as many of them as can), embrace them, and then handsell them to our customers. It’s a considerable challenge (and considerably less fun, I think) to select books based, to some extent, on their likely ability to "sell themselves," judging from their cover art, their plot synopses, their already established track records. Is this what the buying life is like the buyers of big chain stores, online-only bookstores, and distributors?  Anyone care to weigh in?

4 thoughts on “A New Bookstore Poses a Buying Challenge

  1. J. Shear

    Unfortunately, the bottom line usually trumps personal preference. I am a book buyer, and I love books – I’m usually to be found with my nose in one of them. That being said, selling books is a business, and book stores sell books to ultimately turn a profit. A cruddy book that sells itself…well, *sells*, and as a buyer, it’s your job to get that book back into stock as quickly as you can. Whether you can take a chance on an unknown gem of a title depends on several things – the charisma of your sales force, for one. And your comfort level with the fact that the inch or two of shelf space it’s using could be hosting a proven seller instead. It’s been my experience that a company’s profit margin is usually inversely proportional to its buyer’s freedom of choice.

  2. Leslie Lanier

    I disagree with J. Shear. The ability to differentiate between and “airport” b ookstore and a great independent booksstore is taking a chance with books. I buy books for a small space in a coffee shop that caters to tourists. Rarely is a bookseller around to handsell. It is the odd book that people can find that they brag about. Many times the tourist will say they have looked all over B&N or Books a Million and could not find a book. They love being able to see every book in the space in a short amount of time. It keeps them coming back every time they visit the island. Booksense lists, NY times to get started and tweek the buying as you go. Give Lisa a few more hours to try to talk and ask for suggestions. Good Luck!

  3. Danielle Wood

    As the parent to a preschooler and a (sadly) frequent visitor to airport bookstores, I would heartily urge you to stick with your inclination to have some undiscovered gems alongside old favorites. It annoys me to no end that airports have nothing unfamiliar to me when I buy a reading “treat” to bring home for my son. I suggest handwritten notes taped to the shelves that explain what’s so magical about the less familiar treasures, to entice people to take a look. A sense of discovery is the most appealing thing about independent bookstores– they can’t compete by sheer number of titles alone, with a chain. But like “Hear Music”, if I find a little place that turns me on to things I never would have uncovered myself, I’m a customer for life! Danielle Wood, Education.com


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