By Linda Lovely
Independent bookstore statistics appear to tell a story that’s all gloom and doom. Over half of the 5,000 indie bookstores open for business in 1991 had closed by 2009 and their share of market slid from 31% to 12%. Yet many survivors flourish. How?
Tricia Lightweis, who opened The Booksmith in Seneca, SC, in 1989 with her husband, Alan, thinks constant re-evaluation is the key to indie success. In a recent interview, she talked about indie survival strategies, relationships with authors and readers, changing technology and the bookstore’s role in the community. Here’s Part 1 of that interview:
Give us a little history first. What prompted you to open The Booksmith?
This is our 21st year in the same Seneca, South Carolina, shopping plaza. I’d already opened an International Deli in this plaza. I opened The Booksmith for our four children. I was an avid reader and so were my children. The nearest bookstore was 50 miles away, and I was taking my children to the library twice a week. If I felt a need for a bookstore for my children and myself, I figured plenty of other parents would appreciate one, too. When we opened in 1989, we were 100 percent focused on books.
How has The Booksmith changed?
We expanded the Booksmith and doubled the square footage 10 years ago. We also began selling book-related sidelines. At that time, our book-to-sideline ratio was 90% - 10%.
After the inclusion of a U.S. Postal Service contract unit into our facility, we realized that Booksmith needed to diversify and increase the sideline inventory to appeal to non-readers. We noted that placement of this new inventory should surround the immediate postal area and the walkway entrance. We also incorporated the immediate area with our Regional & Travel book genres hoping they would appeal to everyone.
The change was not applauded by some of our book-purist customers. One woman screamed that Booksmith was no longer a bookstore. I explained to her, if I showed her our inventory and sales reports, she’d see that books still represented 80 percent of our business.
The visual impression can be misleading. If you’re going to survive in business, you have to constantly challenge yourself – reevaluate and change your business model to reflect current buying trends. It appears that bookstores that haven’t offered diversification are struggling the most.
Any comments on changes in book formats and technology?
We now offer e-books on our web site. We’re onboard with the new technology. In the future, when Sony or other providers produce an e-book reader geared to the independent world of bookselling, we’ll be right there with them. We will not offer the Kindle, which uses a proprietary format.
While there’s been talk about print-on-demand machines in bookstores, I don’t think you’ll find them outside of major cities for many years to come. The cost is simply too high.
Paper books aren’t going to disappear. Many readers – myself included – still want physical books they can hold in their hands. But the format has changed. In 1989, 100 percent of our paperbacks were mass market. Now it’s just the opposite. Large-format paperbacks rule.
The Booksmith [www.thebooksmith.com] is a member of the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Association (SIBA), The American Booksellers Association (ABA) and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE).
Award-winning author Linda Lovely writes romantic suspense novels featuring “smart, sexy heroines caught up in danger-packed situations that require them to partner with equally smart, sexy men.” Her novel, "Counterfeit," is a finalist in the Romantic Suspense category of the 2010 Golden Heart contest sponsored by the Romance Writers of America.
Photo courtesy of The Booksmith.