I've always wanted to own a bookstore. If you write — or if you read voraciously — that's sort of a universal dream: Surround yourself with stacks of books, maybe a cat named Orlando or Sherlock, and write, in between thoughtful discussions with well-read customers turning to your shop for the next great read.
Unfortunately, the only thing that pays less than journalism is owning a bookstore.
Except maybe not. Turns out, indie bookstores are on the cusp of a renaissance. While no one wants to see any bookstore close, the fact that Borders couldn't make it while shops like Wilson's and Inkwood can lifts the heart of every bibliophile. Indies, it seems, are hitting their stride.
I don't make this observation anecdotally; last fall I met a couple who run Paz & Associates, a company that helps launch indie bookstores. Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman work with new bookstores before they open their doors, helping them get set up for success. They've seen an uptick in business as well as registrants for their “bookstore boot camp” for prospective bookstore owners. Registration has grown steadily, more than doubling since 2012. Likewise, sales of their book Owning a Bookstore: The Essential Planning Guide have also doubled. That book isn't a 99¢ special on Amazon; it costs $100, which means the people who buy it aren't indulging a “someday” fantasy.
Mark Kaufman says that computers and big box stores deserve both credit and blame for the indie bookstore trend.
“As more and more consumers seek authentic experiences — as well as suffer from screen fatigue — and embrace the Shop Local movement, indie bookstores have an important niche to fill,” he says.
Of course, it isn't as easy as ordering some books and hanging out a shingle; books cost money, and while publishers don't charge resellers the cover price (40 percent is the standard discount), inventory costs mount quickly. Without several credit references, a business will often have to pay cash for books. Add rent and utilities, licenses, credit card fees and staff, and the idyllic dream can quickly turn into a fiscal nightmare.
So what does it cost to open a bookstore?
“The three most significant costs are inventory, fixtures (bookcases and display accessories), and computerized inventory management system,” Mark Kaufman says. “We suggest a budget of $125 per selling square foot.” Add in any redesign or additions and that can run up to $200 per square selling foot.
Doing that math, a bookstore with 1,000 square feet of selling space would cost between $125,000 and $200,000. That's not something you do on a whim.
“If you're wealthy enough to have a bookstore as a hobby, by all means go for it,” he says. “Otherwise, invest in learning the best business practices that apply to independent bookstores.”
His wife agrees: A dream is not enough.
“Most new owners do not come with a business background and if they have retail experience, it’s generally limited to front line work during school years,” Donna Paz Kaufman says. "The book business is also nuanced; millions and millions of titles remain in print and sometimes continue selling for years and years, while new books are released at the rate of over 2,000 a week."
So much for me and my dream (and my bookstore cat, who would have been named Travis McGee).
Still, Kaufman assures me a bookstore “should do well with the proper education and training.”
In the Tampa Bay area, Paz & Associates worked with Inkwood Books, and now they're helping a local woman find the best location for her indie bookstore in St. Petersburg. The duo recently worked with one of Jeb Bush's top advisers, Sally Bradshaw, to open the 1,400-square foot Midtown Reader in Tallahassee.
keeps the book sales local, explains owner Stefani Beddingfield; otherwise, people might buy the book online or from a big box store and bring it to the signing. This way, they get to meet the writer and the indie bookstore gets the sale.
So, yes, the number of indie bookstores is expected to grow in the coming year — no surprise, really, with the support from local groups like Keep St. Pete Lit and Wordier Than Thou, the latter of which has a live/work space that serves as a bookstore in Pinellas Park's creative district.
For the right person, says Mark Kaufman, an indie bookstore can be a dream come true. “You may never work harder, but you'll never find work that's more rewarding.
But he does add a word of caution.
“Don't make the mistake of thinking that you'll have more time to read.”