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How do you save a struggling bookstore? Ask HackerNews

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Lorem Ipsum Books, an independent used bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., faces declining sales and its founder, MIT Media Lab graduate Matt Mankins, now lives in New York. Over the weekend, Mankins went to HackerNews — a website about startups and computer hacking run by startup incubator Y Combinator — to ask, “Know of a hacker in Cambridge or Boston who wants a bookstore?” The post has received 86 responses so far — not just from people who want to buy Lorem Ipsum but also from those who have ideas on how to save a struggling indie bookstore.

Mankins tells the Boston Globe, “Ideally I’d find an innovator who enjoys reading, understands the community benefits that bookstores provide, and isn’t afraid to do things differently to nudge the store and the industry in different directions.”

A few HackerNews users expressed interest in possibly buying the store; plenty of others offered ideas to save it. Here are a few of the suggestions:

  • Lease the Espresso Book Machine, which prints out-of-print and self-published titles on demand. (Several independent bookstores, like the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge and McNally Robinson in New York, lease them.) “The machine is so expensive. The lease on it is more than our rent,” Mankins responded, but notes a future owner might be able to rig a cheaper POD machine using laser printers and binding tools.
  • Open a members-only bookstore/coffee shop: “I’ve always dreamed of hybrid book store/coffee shops. Perhaps ones that sell subscription access, becoming for-pay lending libraries with a book inventory that adjusts to patron demands. That way you have recurring revenue off each customer, and you can hope people sign up for it like they do for gym memberships and then don’t show.”
  • Offer coworking space. “I would kill for a bookstore environment with coffee and decent chairs. As it is, I do most of my work in a Barnes and Noble, and my back hates me for it,” one user wrote. Another: “Become a hacker/student-centric coffee shop that enables freelancers, et al, to work in a less frenetic environment than Starbucks.”
  • Buy a MakerBot 3D printer and charge people to use it.
  • Just get referral fees from Amazon. “I tend to walk into (South African) bookstores to buy Wired’s UK edition and browse books for a while until I know what else I’d like to read. At that point I write down the book’s title and later download it for my Kindle. I’ve often thought that bookstores should have QR-codes with amazon referral links that make my purchases easier.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr / ButterflySha

7 Responses to “How do you save a struggling bookstore? Ask HackerNews”

  1. Have lots of autograph parties for authors. Send out a weekly newsletter, making it easy to preorder signed books by coming authors. M is for Mystery (San Mateo, CA) had several signing a week, but the owner retired and store went to used books. Keplers (Menlo Park, CA went for months only open for autograph parties, has reopened with normal hours and many signings. The small Books, Inc chain in CA has at least one signing a day spread out among the stores.

  2. The chances of selling books online are probably a better bet that foot traffic. A bit of work to create intrigue is required such as writing original content. The articles can be in the form of reviews or small business concerns etc.
    With the amount of inventory in the bookstore, there’s plenty of material to write about and get exposure online. Some places like notemote allow for both, building a business profile and listing goods for sale. Either way, trying something new at this point can be the ticket to better things.

  3. Eric Riback

    The referral-fee from amazon idea is cute. And certainly one can argue that getting a few percent is better than not. But the bookstore will go out of business anyhow because the writer is not actually buying any books, just a magazine once a month. All the referral fees in the world won’t pay the rent, not to mention the inventory he is browsing and not purchasing. If he’d like the bookstore to survive as a place for him to discover what books he’d like to read, he’s going to need to buy some books. He can give them away and buy the kindle version for himself if he prefers.

  4. A bookshop owner I know runs a successful mail-order book club for readers who live in remote areas, don’t have the time to peruse book choices themselves, or just like someone else to select a specific type of books for them – books like Fall on Your Knees are popular with her members. She also sells art stationery in part of the shop and combines it all with a coffee shop! Another bookshop owner I know concentrated on children’s books because she reckoned people were prepared to spend money on beautiful books for kids.

    • Eric Riback

      Selling sidelines such as stationery and coffee have long been the things that saved bookstores. Illustrated childrens books are important because they have not been successfully represented on digital readers yet. plus they are great gifts.