Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Who's askin', bud.

I hereby officially give up on all attempts to talk to other bookstore owners while on trips.

(With one significant exception, which happened on the way home after I wrote most of this entry.)

Today was typical. We passed by what looked like a Crafter's Mall kind of store with a small sign saying, BOOKS. Since we never pass up a bookstore, we popped in, to find that a good 25% of a very large space were used books, and they were separated by category and author and nicely displayed.

The store had a ton of other collectibles, up to and including comics, toys and baseball cards -- but the kind of collections they probably got for pennies on the dollar, at estate sales or garage sales.

Anyway, I introduced myself as someone who had a bookstore in Bend.

"We dropped in because of your sign for books," I said. "But you have way more than I would've expected...."

"How do you like this space?" she asks. (I think she maybe was hoping to rent out....)

"I'd kill for a space this big," I said. "But our rent is 2.00 a foot in downtown Bend."

The husband said, "In Sacramento they're paying 12.00 a foot!"

"I think we're talking apples and oranges," I said. (Later I looked up the highest rents in the country, and mid-town Manhattan is about 6.50 a foot. San Francisco office is about 3.00 per foot. So I suspect the guy was talking about 1.00 a foot per month...)

She shrugged. 2.00 a foot just didn't register as anything special.

"How big is this space?" I asked.

"Oh, about 4500 sq. ft."

"So my rent would be 9000.00 a month," I said. A lady browsing in the store gawfawed unbelieving, as if I'd just told a whopper.

"Well, you gotta realize they break up the spaces downtown," I said lamely, "so not many people are paying that much..."

Conversation was cut short. I was shown their backs.

I'm feeling kind of embarrassed, like they think I was bragging or something. Whereas I thought I was just imparting information. So I wandered around, not wanting to seem too put out.

Later, I asked if they sold many sports cards?

NO, the guy says.

End of conversation.

I'm always a little embarrassed and humbled by these types of conversations. I'm sure if I talked about the weather and how "great" books are and so on, the conversation would've continued, but nothing ever gets to the point of real substance.

I have to believe it's my own fault, because it almost always ends this way -- or never gets started. They either shut down, or show zero curiosity. I think I come across as a little too aggressive or straightforward; I don't grease the wheels first.

Linda tells me to just act like a customer, and I'd probably get more information that way, and I suppose it might be true.

I suspect I'd still get lots of talk about the weather.

P.S. Later, we visited a couple of other bookstores, and taking Linda's advice, I took a much more casual approach. But, while the conversation was pleasant enough, I'm still not sure I learned much.

Then on the way back to Bend, we took a sidetrip to Roseburg. I knew there was a longtime comic shop (HEROES HAVEN) there, and we drove through a half-empty downtown hoping to stumble across it, and sure enough I saw comic posters in some windows.

We went in what was the back door, and found ourselves in a nice comic shop, about twice as big as mine. The owner, Brett, was there along with his parents, who apparently have always been involved in the store, in fact, they had been running the store for a couple of weeks while Brett took his sister down to college in Arizona.

Since we both belong to the Comic Book Industry Alliance bulletin board, I took a chance and introduced myself.

"Of course!" he says. "I read your blog!"

"Really!" I was feeling inordinately pleased. "But you never comment!"

"I tried once, but it wouldn't post. Anyway, we have so many of the same concerns...."(so far so good) -------"but we have completely opposite solutions."

You know, I thought about this comment for a long time on the way home, and decided that it was completely O.K. And not all that surprising.

The main thing is -- he recognizes some of the same problems as me, which is the most important part of the equation. Recognizing the problems.

His solutions would be dictated by his space, his inclinations, his history and many other factors, just as mine are.

Besides, in talking to him, I realized that really we weren't all that far off. For instance, he had also decided that 'play space' for the gamers was a non-winner. He too had recognized that boardgames could sell, and that few others were competing with us.

His magic competition was such that he felt compelled to lower prices, and I'm facing the same dilemma. I'm probably going to just scale back my orders and concentrate on better selling product, but we more or less had the same problem.

He told me he had gotten in early on Warhammer, and it had always been a valuable part of his store. When he had some tough competition, he found that steadily ordering and having in stock the newest releases had eventually overcome the 'new' guy. Which is another similarity we have in the way we stock our stores.

The biggest difference I saw was that he had many more monthly comics displayed on the wall, as well as back issues. He had less graphic novels than I carry, and he didn't have as much 'independent' art type books. He had a similar selection of toys. And he had avoided sports cards and manga -- "There were 14 card shops in Roseburg and now there are none!" I told him I thought he was probably lucky to have missed those two fads.

Anyway, we talked for over an hour and it seemed like we barely scratched the surface, and Linda was pulling on my arm, so after getting his business card, we left. I told him that if I ever took the plunge into Warhammer I'd be asking for advice.

A couple of other things. He has more subscribers and obviously sells more monthlies than I do, even though he's in a smaller town. But when you walk into his store, it obviously is a "comic" shop, and my store is a bit more "pop culture" store -- which if you are into comics you probably find them, but if you aren't into comics you might hardly know they are there. Same with games and the rest.

I pay a penalty by having the limited space and high rents, but I feel like I have to do it because of the location. That is, devoting twice the space to comics probably wouldn't result in enough sales to compensate for the lost sales in everything else.

If I was in a cheaper location with more space, yeah, I probably would sell more comics.

The second remarkable thing is that Brett started his store when he was 15 years old, (I think he's currently in his late 30's) and that he has almost never missed any of the Oregon comic conventions. He is a true, blue comic guy.


Leitmotiv said...

I went down to Klamath Falls last month and talked with the only used bookstore owner there. I told her about your blog and she seemed very interested in having a conversation with you about bookstores. One particular question she had in mind was how you, particularly your wife, handles used book credit. She had some weird thing about adding a quarter above the half credit/half cash thing. Maybe I misunderstood her?

She also stamped books that she didn't want to buy back to avoid a glut of stuff she figured sells very rarely. One other mention about romance books, in that she had to limit the amount she bought because of the overabundance of the genre.

I wouldn't stop having conversations with bookstore owners because of the few closet cases, but perhaps a different approach like you said, could work wonders?

Leitmotiv said...

your reputation is now preceding you!