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The Accidental Antiquarian

Battening Down the Hatches
How to Cut Costs and Improve Business
in Tough Times

by Chris Lowenstein

#129, 3 November 2008

I recently had to make a critical decision about my antiquarian bookselling business. The decision was critical because the consequences of the decision could mean the opportunity to grow my business or the misfortune of putting it in a vulnerable position.

About a month ago, I came across a small office space in the downtown/shopping district of my city. It was the perfect size for a business of one - 425 square feet. The location, near a couple of restaurants, antique shops, the main library, and another bookshop seemed perfect. Even more perfect was the inexpensive rent. Because the space was small, it was difficult to rent, so the asking price for the one-year lease seemed more than reasonable.

I went home to think it over. That's right. Home. I currently work out of my home, and I do not have a room dedicated solely to my books. The books are to be found in bookcases throughout my house. My "office" is in a corner of my dining room, and my dining room table serves as a worktable during the day and is cleared off so my family can use it as a dinner table at night. Renting the office space on a street full of shops might provide me the opportunity for people to sell me books, for me to sell books to more people than I currently reach, and for the rest of the trade to consider my business a credible one.

While I was taking a few days to consider whether my business currently produces enough money for me to consistently pay the rent on the office each month and buy new stock and participate in book fairs regularly, the American economy imploded. In addition to thinking about whether my own business could sustain the commitment to a monthly rent bill, now I had to think about whether I would still have customers who want to spend money on fine and rare books. Fine and rare books are wonderful, but they are a luxury item, and if one must choose between food and shelter or fine and rare books, only the truest of bibliophiles will choose the books. I wondered whether the economy would be bad for as long as the "professionals" were predicting.

If I moved my business out of my home to an office and my sales slumped, I would still owe monthly rent. Working at home, I can have a bad month or two or take a month off, because my overhead is very, very low. Additionally, if my sales are good, but not great, I would be able to pay the rent but unable to purchase new inventory. A bookseller who can't add new inventory on a regular basis stagnates and goes out of business. I don't want to be that bookseller.

I couldn't decide. Was the serendipitous find of this space an opportunity to grow my business or would it, like many other shops for many other sellers, be the siren song that lured me to business bankruptcy?

After talking it over with a couple of other booksellers I trust, I turned down the opportunity to rent a space at this time. I may pursue it in the future, but I decided that now just wasn't the right time. In light of the performance of the stock market and the rest of the economy the past few weeks, I think my decision was justified.

I also began to think about ways that booksellers can cut costs and save money if the antiquarian book business goes into a slump along with the rest of the economy. Here are a few ideas:

  1. When exhibiting at book fairs, split a booth space with another bookseller. Your fees for the space and display cases will usually be halved.

  2. Save shipping costs by purchasing materials such as boxes and bubble wrap in bulk. The vendor from whom I buy boxes has sales twice a year, and I try to purchase enough boxes to get a bulk rate and to purchase only during the sale times.

  3. Consider recycling packaging materials, like those Styrofoam "peanuts" you sometimes get when you order a book. Some dealers also recycle boxes, but I haven't found a consensus among other dealers as to whether or not customers appreciate this or find it unprofessional. If you do recycle a box, remember that while recycling is admirable, so is professionalism. Don't ship a book in a food box (yes, someone has shipped a book this way to me. Food crumbs and books just don't mix well), and if you re-use a box, make sure it is still sturdy enough to take a beating from the journey of shipping and clean enough to clearly mark the customer's address.

  4. Be on the lookout for book bargains. As other dealers and people who just want to trade in their old books for cash feel pinched by the economy, prices may drop a bit. Be sure you have the cash on hand to buy when you find a bargain. One reason I didn't rent the office space I loved was so that my working capital was not tied up in a monthly rent bill. Now I will be free to purchase a good find should one come my way.

  5. If you have an open shop, be sure you're turning off the lights, stereo, computers at night. This is a way to "go green" and conserve energy as well.

  6. Consider using email newsletters and coupons for marketing purposes rather than print advertising. Also consider making print catalogues downloadable PDF so you don't have to spend so much on postage.

  7. Remind your customers that books as objects have value. A fine book in a subject in which a person has an interest may actually cost less than another luxury item, like a piece of jewelry or a work of art. A fine book may even cost less and have a better aesthetic than expensive electronic gadgets like Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle. Make sure your customers know that books are a worthwhile alternative to such purchases.

  8. Consider a loyalty program for repeat customers - perhaps a coupon for 10% off the next purchase or a gift card or even a hand-written thank-you note.

  9. Make sure you become known for maintaining excellent customer service and enthusiasm for your business, even in the light of economic bad news. Investing in building a good reputation is not expensive, and word-of-mouth can sometimes bring the best customers.

  10. Develop and maintain relationships with other booksellers. Very often the best ideas I receive come from the other people in the trade who have more experience than I do. Don't be afraid to ask a colleague to share ideas.

  11. Maintain confidence in your business. Right now I'm glad that my most recent financial investment was used to start my own antiquarian book business rather put into the stock market. There's no guarantee that I'll be a successful bookseller, but at this point, I feel like I have more control over my own destiny.
Hope these ideas help. I'd love to hear more ideas if you have them.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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