The Basics of Opening a Bookstore

a mom and her son scanning the shelves in a bookstore

Michael H / Digital Vision / Getty Images

For many book lovers, opening a bookstore seems to be a dream job. Independent booksellers enjoy being part of a community, encouraging the pleasure of reading in adults, and helping to make lifelong readers out of children.

Opening a Bookstore

Of course, as with any business, the realities of opening a bookstore are a lot more complicated than the dream of bookselling. If you’re considering buying or starting a bookstore, here are some facts about bookselling.

Bookselling Is a Retail Business

For independent booksellers, opening a bookstore business mostly revolves around selling printed books. Like all “bricks and mortar” retailers, successful bookselling requires:

  • A Desirable Location
    Likely around other retailers, and somewhere there will be lots of foot traffic. Generally, the better the location, the more expensive the per-square-foot rental will be.
  • “Retail” (i.e. Sometimes Long) Hours
    You’re paying rent for the location and in most of today’s retail environments, customers expect stores to be open when it’s convenient for them to shop. That almost always means at least some late nights, weekend days, and even many holidays.
  • A Capable Bookselling Staff
    Successful booksellers rely on their staff to engage and “hand-sell” their customers. That means time spent recruiting and training personable, book-knowledgeable people. It also means ensuring you keep your bookselling staff interested and engaged themselves, so you retain their services for as long as possible to keep your bookstore’s continuity and make your time, money, and energy investment in your staff worthwhile.
  • Effective Book Buying
    For the book lover, the act of buying books every season can be a great deal of fun—as well as a lot of work. It means reviewing publishers’ seasonal lists for the up-and-coming new titles, making judgments about books you’ve never read, and buying a mix of titles that appeal to a broad range of tastes (including books that don’t appeal to you personally as a reader).
  • Efficient Book Inventory Management
    Even small bookstores stock thousands of different “products,” which need to be analyzed for a sales rate of movement, etc., to maximize the appeal of the selection in the store and keep the stock turning. Other factors include managing inventory “shrinkage” (aka shoplifting). Note that cartons of books tend to be very heavy—toting and lifting and shelving them is hard work (in fact, you want might want to add “strong” to the list of traits your capable staff, above, will need).

Tends to Be a Low-margin Business

Bookselling profits are generally more slender than many other retail businesses. Some booksellers find that their “ancillary” sales—stationery, tee shirts, mugs, gifts—and, indeed, their café—nets a bigger profit-per-square-foot than the actual book sales. Though many an aspiring bookseller has gotten into the business because of their love of books and reading, love of accounting and finance are great traits for a bookseller to have. Barring possessing those skills themselves, it’s critical that a bookseller contract out for competent people in that area.

Is a Competitive Business 

Even if you have no nearby competition from other brick-and-mortar stores, there’s always competition from the online retailers of both print books and e-books, like,, the Apple iBookstore, and even many publishers who sell their books directly to the public.

In addition to staying abreast of the bestsellers, to stay competitive the independent bookseller needs to keep current with the quickly changing technologies of online ordering, e-reader devices, e-book downloads, and print-on-demand equipment and capabilities.
In addition to the text delivery technologies, staying engaged with social media marketing technologies keeps the bookseller connected to his or her customers. A Facebook page for the bookstore, regular e-newsletters to customers (like the one written by R. J. Julia owner ), and even Twitter streams can be as important for bookseller promotions as traditional book signings and other in-store events.
If all the elements of a retail business excite you, and the idea of working with books brings you joy, then owning a bookstore might be the right career for you.