Top Twenty (really 21) Tips for Indie Bookstores

2011 may well be the year for independent bookstores, with many smaller more personal stores opening as well as small niche stores that sell new and used books thriving or at least holding their own despite the ever constant threat of online sales, e-books, big box stores and big bookstore chains. Kate Ryan, RT's Bookstores That Care Network coordinator, offers her top twenty (really twenty one) tips to help support indie bookstores to continue to thrive in this every changing book world.

1.  Make sure you have a website! If you don't have one, contact www.chrislands.com for pre-made bookseller sites or get a local college student to set up something basic and low cost for you. You need a presence whether customers can order books from your site or not.

2.  Create a designated "technological support person". This can be a savvy customer who will tweet/post on facebook for you for a discount on books, or the staff person who has expertise with social networking.

3.  Get the word out! Send electronic newsletters, blog, open a facebook account, and tweet about your store.

4.  Reward your customers for shopping at your store with incentive/loyalty cards, raffles, in-store contests, annual sales, and if you are a second hand bookstore have a box/shelf filled with "free" books for customers who purchase over a certain amount. This is a great way to get rid of overstock and introduce customers to new authors.

5.  Highlight books of interest in your store with shelf talkers, "If you like..." lists, and sections devoted to quirky topics. For example, these could be top cult books, staff picks shelves, or author of the month, etc. (For more ideas about good book lists for displays, check here.) You can put together your own lists of these things online as well as in your store.

6.  Use your store windows! If you have them, don't waste them. If you are not up to the task, find someone who loves to play around with displays and new ideas. A regular and interesting window display will always bring in customers.

7.  Don't forget to pay attention to the signage in your store as well as outside. Make sure people can see who you are and what you sell from as far away as possible. Make sure you have hours, offers, trade policies clearly posted in your store as well as on the door.

8.  Make friends with authors who will support you with cyber related events as well as in store events. Get on these author's mailing lists, follow their tweets and facebook accounts. This will give you anecdotes to share with customers, and keep you up to date on your favorite author's sites.

9.  Create community by offering all kinds of regular (and different) events to bring people together. Check out the Word in Brooklyn for unusual ideas, like hosting a bananagrams night, or have pot luck dinners at your store. Make sure some of these events meet regularly (weekly or monthly) and that customers always feel they can drop in and join any time. These events will bring people to your store.

10.  Emphasize Your Differences. Highlight ALL of your personal quirks. This will make people smile and remember you, and will make people feel good about shopping with you. Also if you have been given any awards, or mentions in a newspaper make sure you publicize or advertise this in your store (with framed signs or email tag lines). If you have an interest in something--focus on it, you can't offer everything but you can be an expert on something you love.

11.  Support your Neighborhood. Help out in your community, support school sports and events, local theaters, churches; this will drive business back to your store. In addition support any causes that have meaning for you publicly in your store (i.e. Have a half filled box with supplies for soldiers that you will send out, or a clothing collection box in front of your store for a local shelter, or collect ink cartridges for the local school.)

12.  Market yourself in your community: Write a book review column for your local newspaper, have window display contests, or student essay contests, support local events and make sure you have a table (selling books) at any public venue that will have you.

13.  Work the area you live in. Support your local schools / teachers by offering to sell books on their lists as well as giving teachers discounts to buy from you. In the same vein, market yourself to local businesses, many regularly order books for their employees and would appreciate a regular contact and discount at a local store. Contact prisons if you have any near you, sometimes hard to establish a relationship with but usually lucrative when you do.

14.  Join other groups that will give you support, like your local Independent Bookseller Association, the ABA, RT's Bookstores that Care, your Shop Local Movement or your local Chamber of Commerce. You will support them and they will reciprocate. Also join online bookstore groups like RT's private online bulletin board, or the oldbookstore yahoo group. Contact Kate@rtbookreviews.com for info on joining the RT Book Reviews bulletin board.

15.  Attend at least one Book Conference or large Book Fair a year--it will reinvigorate you, and help you make new contacts with authors, publishers and customers.

16.  Make sure you have an area in your store where you can highlight new books before they come out. Establish a relationship with your customers, so that you can pre-order new books for regulars and call/email them when the books arrive. Keep a running whiteboard list near your cash register advertising upcoming releases with the offer to pre-order through your store at a discount.

17.  Sell online! You don't have to sell though your own website, you can sell on Amazon.com, eBay, Half.com, alibris, bibliofind or any of the other venues where non-booksellers sell. Whether or not any customers do, the mailman stops at your store everyday. 

18.  Start your own "mail order" book club, with either adult new fiction or children's books. Create a 12 year subscription or an ongoing monthly credit charge where you can hand select noteworthy books for your customers which you ship regularly. Have fun being the arbiter of taste.

19.  Contact Google eBooks so you can start selling e-books. For more info go to the site's help section.  Consider having Google eBook information sessions in your store--or have an accessible computer in your store so e-book reading people will order through your portal.

20.  Cultivate relationships with any other local bookstores and libraries near you. Building a relationship will make you all stronger and you can support each other and your reading community together in many exciting and dynamic ways. Make a local map with all local literary info printed, (all stores, libraries, odd literary ephemera like historic homes etc) these can be distributed at rest stops and of course distributed through all stores and libraries that participate.

21.  Whatever you do---make sure your bookstore is showcased. Any email you send, blog post you write should have your store name, website, address and phone number in a tagline if possible. If you give any books away (to hospitals doctor waiting rooms, schools etc) make sure you have rubber stamped your bookstore info inside. Advertise to your customers with bookmarks that have your address, email address and phone number. You would be amazed how far these books bookmarks will travel. Make sure you have your area code, as well as state and zip code listed always. 

Remember to do what you do best, which is to share your expertise and enthusiasm for books and reading to whatever cranky, wonderful or unusual oddball customer happens to wander in your door. But more importantly remember to be nice to everyone. Always take the extra time to be helpful and share your knowledge and expertise. Even if a customer doesn't buy something today, they will remember you with generosity and will recommend you or come back the next chance they get.

- Kate Ryan

If you have any helpful tips that Kate didn't cover, please leave them in the comments below!