More than a bookshop

<p>Last week I attended <a href="http://www.thebookseller.com/awards.html">The Bookseller Retail Awards</a>, and watched the winners being cited for innovation in bookselling. But the innovations seemed more about diversification and survival than they did about selling books. I got into conversation with the other booksellers on the table, the topic being is it possible for the independent bookseller to make a living selling books?<br />
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When we got into bookselling some 10 years ago there seemed to be about 2 &ndash; 3,000 independents, now I'm told there are about 500, with five independents closing every month. The news of the Borders sale, which on the face of it looks like the bargain of the century, is another indication of the malaise facing bookselling where even large established chains are struggling.<br />
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In our 10 years of trading we have seen the independent market decimated. Now I've been around a bit, working as I do as a turnaround specialist assisting failing business and large civil sector projects come back into profit or budget, but I've never seen an industry so hell bent on destroying its market place. Yes, well, ok, maybe there are comparisons with the British carpet industry selling off its old weaving machines to India. Funny how you can only buy imported carpets these days.<br />
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We are a children's bookshop, selling only children's books, based in a small Wiltshire market town with a population of around 20,000. We are fortunate that we own all our property and don't have to meet large rental payments. None the less we still have a cost base we have to meet before we break even. The town has five bookshops and not more than a 10 minute drive away a Sainsbury's, a Morrison's and the largest Tesco in the world, well at least one of two stories that sells everything except cars and I hear they are considering that.&nbsp; <br />
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Back to our cost base, to break even we have to turnover &pound;100,000 a year, but we sell children's books which retail at, after discount, about &pound;4. To achieve a revenue stream of &pound;100,000 we have to sell 25,000 books. Just a tick, there's only 20.000 people in the town or to put that another way about 5,000 families and we are not the only people trying to sell them books. Now I did see a statistic the other day that said the average person in their life time reads about 500 books or about 6 a year. Mostly borrowed from libraries, schools and family. How many books the average person buys a year I don't know but my guess is not many. <br />
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Before we make a profit we need to sell 5 books every year to every family in the town. This is not a business case that is going to be looked on favourably by the bank manager. How can we increase our turnover and profits? We could move to a bigger town or&nbsp; we could diversify and try selling something else&mdash;coffee seems a favourite for many people and you can see why,&nbsp; for every book we sell at &pound;4 we make a gross profit of about &pound;1.50, for every cup of coffee sold at &pound;2.20 the gross profit is around &pound;1.80. More people drink coffee than read books. Trouble is when do you stop being a bookshop providing a service and start becoming a coffee shop, ice-cream parlour, cyber caf&eacute;, or art gallery that offers a few books?<br />
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The retail awards went to entrepreneurial people determined to survive, I&rsquo;m not sure they would if they just concentrated on selling books. I know my examples are all given in round figures and that adult books provide higher profits. But the point I think is made. The traditional independent is a dead animal. To survive&mdash;and it is about survival&mdash;we need to diversify into some form of affinity selling, original art, cards, toys whatever. One thing I think is certain we will not be able to sell our business when we go. Whoever we sell to will probably open a coffee shop or maybe an estate agent.</p>
<p><em>The Wellwisher Children's Bookshop was shortlisted for the Walker Books Children's Independent of the Year award at this year's <a href="http://cde.cerosmedia.com/1G46f282423f59e012.cde">Retail Awards</a>.</em></p>