Sunday, October 2, 2011

How to Run a Bookstore: Neatness doesn’t count, customers prefer stacks on the floor to books on the shelf - by Larry McMurtry

The first essential is to have good stock. The better the books, the more people will come. We were fortunate that when we started this business in 1971, we came into the secondhand book trade just as a lot of ancient families were dying out and selling grandpa’s books, so we were able to get a respectable stock very cheaply.

For a large bookshop to survive today, you need cheap real estate, or you have to be an institution like Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., or the Tattered Cover in Denver. They have everything from lunch counters to day care to get families to spend the day at the store. We are here in Archer City, Tex., where we can get buildings for $30,000 to $50,000. If we have two customers a day, it’s like a riot. We’ve had our first significant Chinese customer, and if we stay open another 10 or 15 years, a large part of our clientele will be from overseas.

There are different kinds of bookstores. For example, there’s the high-end store, like the Heritage in Los Angeles used to be. They had one whole room in which no books were admitted unless they were over $5,000. It was a jungle, but it was an expensive jungle. When Brad Pitt finishes a movie and wants to give a director a present, it has to cost $30,000 or $40,000. They’d go to the Heritage. But there are very few places where there’s that surface money, quick money, excess money.

Now, suppose you’re in Berkeley, down the street from one of the country’s great universities. You’re not going to sell the $40,000 Huck Finn. You’re going to provide a high level of general literature and scholarly books in many fields. You are selling $25 books instead of $5,000 books, and you have to sell a lot of them.

Some people don’t like too much order in bookshops and want to feel like they’re finding something. You can have 300,000 books perfectly arranged on the shelf, and every time, people will walk in and want to look at the books stacked up on the floor. So if you really want to sell something, jumble it up and pitch it on the floor.

McMurtry is the author of Lonesome Dove and owns the bookstore Booked Up.

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