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      SCHOOL: Finding A Specialty

On the Subject of Establishing a Bookselling Specialty...

There are reasons for and against building a specialty within your book business. But I don't care about those against the practice, so I'll just address those reasons that I believe make it a good idea.

First of all, regardless of who we are, we have financial, time, interest, and educational limitations. There has also been a proliferation of general second hand bookstores in larger metropolitan areas across this country. Twenty years ago, there were about a dozen used bookstores in Seattle, primarily in the University district and downtown. Today every neighborhood has at least one used store and most have more. There are five used book stores in my Seattle neighborhood alone with approximately 100 used book operations in the greater Seattle area. Take into account the now ever dwindling supply of desireable used book titles (because there are now 10 times as many dealers and who knows how many book scouts, and readers looking for stock and reading material) and the increased cost of new books which means people are less inclined to just "give away" their "expensive" new books, the cost of availability of desireable used material is stretched awfully thin. So we tend to see the same used titles is most every used bookstore at about the same price--each store in essence competing with every other used store in the city for the same commonly available books. Everybody has approximately 10-20 shelf feet of gardening books, the same with cookbooks, American history, five or six tiles on Greece, 30 poetry titles (mostly obscure) and on and on. Basically a little of this, a little of that...and not much in depth or unique on anything.

What building a specialty does do is allow you to focus on an area or two or three or four where you can bring together under one roof the best, the unique, the unusual, the rare, the highly sought after and yes even the expensive.

Example: Most all of the 100 used stores in the Seattle area have some automotive repair manuals--five, ten, fifteen. But invariably, we never have the right one, the one the guy on the phone is asking for. So a few years back, a fellow who had had a general used store with pretty mediocre stock decided to sell off his general stock and specialize in automotive books. He bought all the repair manuals he could get his hands on including from other booksellers. Whenever I get a call from somebody asking about repair books, I say I don't carry them but call the automotive guy, he's got everything. And it's the truth.

So back to our limitations. This automotive fellow loves working on cars and cares about repairing them. He knows manuals and knows what they cost; he knows when they are out of print and what their dollar value is. Let's say he had $1000 a month to spend on stock. How much more effective is his expenditure today than it was when he had to divide that money over 25 or 30 different sections. Today all of his money goes into automotive books (making his stock the most comprehensive in the area) whereas before he may have spent $100 so he had money to spend on fiction, self-help, metaphysical, history cookbooks etc. And as long as he doesn't get lazy, he can be THE person to call in our area. And the First person to be called. Because who wants to call or drive all over town looking for a book you really want when you can make one phone call or one stop. And if he doesn't have it, he can find it for you.

With a specialty, getting good stock gets easier. First of all, your book-buying funds are devoted strictly to the books that you want people to come to you for. Every day you are going to buy the best, the most unique, the most desireable books in your areas of specialty that you can get access to, whether it be over the counter, over the internet, at auction, or off the shelves of other booksellers.

Your advertising follows suit. Your specialty(ies) should be prominently listed in your yellow pages ad, on your business cards, your letterhead, your entry in your regional bookstore guide...anywhere your name appears (i.e. Specialists in Automotive Books & Repair Manuals or The World's Largest Collection of Books Devoted to Thimbles and the Stitching Arts or Specialists in Cookbooks & the Culinary Arts: New, Used & Rare.) All of this focus of specialty helps the customer as well as you. Consumers and collectors are just as pressed for time as you are. If they come to your town for the first time and are only interested in Civil War material or children's books, they are going to seek out anyone who specializes in their area of interest in hopes of finding the books they can't find in the general shops. I don't know how many times people have told me they have sought me out because I mentioned my areas of specialty in my advertising. "Twenty Thousand General Used Books" is not a strong attraction to specialized buyers who are seeking out unique items and are willing to pay the price when they find them.

Because you specialize in an subject or two or more, you can become a resource locally on the subject and perhaps be asked to speak to local groups, libraries, & organizations. It is here where new customers find out that you have all the good books on their subject.

A specialty or two can also be a wonderful adjunct to an otherwise general operation. By starting small and literally growing a specialty day by day, book by book, shelf-foot by shelf-foot, one does not have to break the bank or turnaway from your customer base. The specialty can allow you to expand your customer base and sell material outside your local environs. So if business is slow through the door locally, you can still work your specialty areas over the phone or through the mail.

As far as choosing an area to focus on, I strongly suggest that you select an area or subject that you know something about, maybe its an area you collect in yourself, or a subject that you know is highly collected or sought after and is not over saturated with booksellers already. The old adage of "find a need and fill it" certainly applies here, as witnessed by the automotive dealer in our area.

Some booksellers may see choosing a specialty as too limiting, but I see it as just the opposite, as an opportunity to expand one's business and carve out a niche in an otherwise general marketplace.

David Gregor--ABAA

Gregor Books
3407 California Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98116

Dear Dave and Biblians,

Your point is dead-on.

>Some booksellers may see choosing a specialty as too limiting, but I see it
>as just the opposite, as an opportunity to expand one's business and carve
>out a niche in an otherwise general marketplace.

What you might have added is that specialization is one of the ONLY EFFECTIVE defenses against mega-bookstores.


Dear Dave, Jerry & everyone else,

Claro que si.

Also, contrary to many postings, nobody is in this business for long if the object is to get rich. Why not work with only the stuff you like best?

When I started on my own, I decided I would only handle what I was interested in. Being a bear of very narrow mind, that limited me to Latin America & the Caribbean, actually a pretty big chunk of the world. (Note how craftily I weave my specialty advertising into the thread.)

Life is too short to trade time for money. Better to trade it for books, but only about things that interest you. Best to trade it for friends, but, again, mostly folk of similar interest. Now most of my correspondence is with people I like. I can't imagine dealing with people who like cars, or rugs all day. Sure am glad there are others to refer them to though.

As to defenses against mega-bookstores, I prefer nuclear...mega-ton, of course.


Cathie & Lynn DeWeese-Parkinson

In Defense of the General Bookstore

After reading David's article on specialist bookstores, and thinking on it a few days, I'd like to make a few comments.

Before specializing there are a number of questions and concerns that you must think carefully thru. (I've asked myself these a few times while considering various specialties myself.)

Specializing is fine, *If* your market will support it. In a big city like Seattle, it may work fine. In a small town it may be the kiss of death. (Unless you live in a tourist town)

This works from both ends of the bookselling process.

In a small town the stock will be less available. This means you may have to aquire your stock via the net or catalogs. Expensive, but doable if your sales will support it. (What's the advantage of having all your buying budget available for a narrow area if the stock is not available? As well, if all you can obtain/afford is the common items in the field....)

At the other end, will your market support your subject? Again, in a small town there may simply not be enough people interested in English Mystery Authors to support your business. This means selling via catalog or the net. Both mean you are competing on a national scale, in many instances against long established firms. Mail order still has a fairly large overhead, as well as the problems associated with building a customer list. (To stay in business, you must conform to your market, not your expectations.)

Many people will answer that they are not selling books to make a living. That's fine, so long as the business will pay it's own costs, or you have a significant source of other income to cover the losses.

There is also the matter of knowledge of the subject matter. Perversely a specialist dealer must work even harder at this than the generalis, the specialist is expected to know all facets of his field. (Moral: Unless you absolutely love the subject of specialization, think very carefully before specializing.)

You must look also to your customer base. As a specialist you will (in the main) lose the casual browser. Unless your area of specialization is common, (as in Mystery readers are more common than students of Lower Slobovvian History), the common browser will not remain long in your store. (Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view.)

Finally, there was the comment that 'specialization was the only defense against megastores'. This claim I find false. If your customers are only interested in 'cheap books' then there may be a problem, but I have not found it to be so. In general you can carry a better selection in most subject areas than the megastore, without spending a great deal of money. (Remember, megastores are limited to books in print. In any subject area, there is a considerable amount of 'classics' and 'standards' that are out of print.)


Derek L.
Interim Books

I read Derek's comments with interest and confusion. I have a small general shop with a small specialization in SF. My SF customers are divided with PB mostly for local consumption and HC for the net. I see no conflict.

I see the dicussion eliminating all gray areas and requiring only specialization OR general stock. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, almost all general shopos, if they wish to admit it or not, have a small specialty even if it is only local history.

Most true specialist dealers I know are closed shop and deal almost exclusively by mail or net. We are supposed to be the ultimate independent businessmen and liberal to a fault. Let's admit we can be a little of both and use this service to prove it.

J.D. Zucatti, Bookseller

It was good to see Derek's cautioning response to my recent posting concerning developing a specialty. I would like to add a few comments in reply.

It was not my intent that everyone selling second hand books stop doing whatever they are doing currently with books and become a specialist. I believe Derek's comment that not everyone who is engaged in the our business is doing so to make a living to be an accurate assessment. There are many people selling books who have other means of income, thus making the necessity for their "book business" to be profitable (i.e. being the sole means of income for the proprietors) unimportant. I, however, direct my perspectives toward those of us who must generate our livlihood solely through the buying and selling of second hand books. Thus, I am always interested in ways to maximize my resources, my time and my chances of making a living. Building a specialty has proven to be one of those ways.

Derek stated that it might be advantagous to specialize "if" your market will support it. The whole idea of a specialty (or two or three) is to EXPAND your immediate marketplace; to ENLARGE your customer base from a small town of say 30,000 people whose interest in books may be very general in nature to perhaps a national or world-wide specialty audience where the possibilities are endless and perhaps more lucrative than your immediate neighborhood. And as far as I can tell, competing on a "national scale" against long established firms is more problematic than competing locally with long established businesses. And in our business, you compete best by having the product, the condition, the value, the service, the personality that the "competition" lacks. The object is to provide material that is not offered on every street corner; to have the unusual, the rare, the uncommon, the highly sought after, the "special" item that is just not found everywhere.

The more sophisticated your area of specialty, naturally, the more sophisticated your means of reaching your clientele needs to be. If you want a worldwide customer base, you have to do more than just open your front door to reach them. Building a mailing is imperative, and to do that you will probably have to advertise in trade journals like The AB Bookman, Firsts Magazine, and Biblio. Perhaps exhibit at as many bookfairs as you can. Build a list of people who come through your store and either ask for or buy books in your focus area, and let every bookstore in your area know what it is you specialize in. The word will spread, and your client list grow.

Derek also stated: "To stay in business, you conform to your market, not your expectations."

While there is a certain grain of truth to this axiom, I would say: If you want to limit your horizons, conform to your market; if you want to reach out and grow, then set your sights high and find ways to fill them.

Derek also pointed out that specialist dealers "must" work harder than generalists, and he is correct. Conscientious business people with a strong desire to grow and improve their "product" or service always work harder. They have to. That's the only way to succeed if your livlihood is your business.

And regarding the statement that as a specialist, you will lose your browser, my response is twofold. First of all, I don't believe any of us has to have an "either"/"or" operation. It is entirely possible to have an open shop of general stock with a strong focus on out of print/collectable Art and Photography books which could be offered worldwide via the net or catalogs (and to folks who walk through the front door). As I mentioned in my first posting, the idea would be to bring together under one roof the deepest selection of desireable titles in the subject of (you name the category): metaphyscial, gardening, cookbooks, women's literature, black literature, civil war, etc. Secondly, browsers are lookers, customers are buyers. I'd rather have two customers than 100 browsers. No business has ever survived on the "purchases" of "browsers". ( I know...somebody is going to counter with numerous anecdotes of people "just came in to browse" and ended up buying a book. My point exactly: the browser lost his looker status when he bought a book.)

I would also like to address the comment (made by another subscriber) that specialties are a strong defense against megastore. I could not agree more. As big as the MegaStores are, they too have "limited" resources and are governed by laws of commerce . And by MegaStores, I mean both new and secondhand. Neither can stock every section with every possible book, which means they have a tendency to shoot for the lowend to the mid range or in the case of new books what's currently in print, reasonably popular (high turnover) and generally in paperback. They sort of carry the "Top-40" range of material. A specialist can stock the popular, the not so common, the unique, the out of the way--basically a one-stop venue for the consumer who is too short of time or patience to go from one general store to another and perhaps come up empty. In terms of new books, this is the best way an independent book store can "compete" with a the big chains. Here in Seattle we have Borders and Barnes and Noble and they're glitzy with their expresso bars and varnished pine. But we also have small independent new bookstores that specialize exlusively in mysteries, one in travel books (along with maps, globes, travel gear etc) another that is poetry only, and still another that deals with things flora & fauna. Each one with a loyal clientele and successful. The same sense of focus can and does work with secondhand books.

Specialties are a tool--a means to an end--not an effortless panacea.

David Gregor--ABAA
Gregor Books

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