How to Start a Used Book Store Online or Off


How to Start a Used Book Store Online or Off

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So you want to start a used bookstore? Some people see bookstores as a dying business. But with the expansion of used bookstore business models like 2nd & Charles, used bookstores may still be a viable business option.

How to Start a Used Book Store Offline

Physical bookstores certainly aren’t as popular as they once were. But if you have the right market and the drive, you can make it work. Here are some tips for starting a used bookstore — of the brick and mortar variety.

Find the Right Location

If you have your heart set on opening a physical bookstore, you’ll need a place to set up shop. So you need to find the right market for your products — consider doing some research to see if people in your community are actually interested in buying used books. Then look for a location that has enough space for you to set up shop and ideally one that is in an area with some foot traffic.

how to start a used book store

Get Necessary Permits

Each state and community has a different set of requirements for local businesses. So you’ll need to look into business licenses, zoning permits and any other necessary permission you’ll need to obtain before actually setting up shop.

Research the Market

If you’re serving a local community, it’s a good idea to try and get a feel for the customers in that area. Not only should you look to determine if they’re actually interested in used books, but you should also try to find out what types of books they’re likely to be interested in buying. For example, if your shop is in an area with a lot of young families, you should probably invest in a decent sized kids’ book section.

Collect Inventory

When you’ve determined what you need, it’s time to work on actually collecting used books to sell. You can find plenty of used books at garage sales and estate sales. But you can also find inventory online or buy books from customers or members of your community.

how to start a used book store

Furnish the Store

Since you don’t want all of that inventory to just sit on the floor, you’ll need some furniture. Invest in some large, sturdy shelves to hold all of your books. And you’ll also need a desk or table where you can help customers complete purchases. You might also consider adding some seating where customers can check out books before buying or wait while their shopping companions complete purchases.

Organize your Inventory

You’ll need to create some kind of system for organizing your merchandise. Create sections like fiction, non-fiction, romance, horror, poetry, classics, kids and more. Then organize the books alphabetically by title or author. And keep that system consistent throughout the store.

Create a Buying Program

Once you’ve got your initial inventory set up, you’ll need to continue adding to it as you sell things. A great way to do that is to create a buying program where customers can bring in their used books to sell. This gives you access to inventory and also brings more potential customers through the door.

Add Something Extra to your Store

Even though there are some deals to be had at used bookstores, customers can still tend to find better prices online since there’s less overhead involved in running an online store. So why should people come to your physical bookstore?

You can convince them to do so by making it more of an experience. Customers might be willing to pay slightly more if they can also purchase coffee at a stand in front of the store or if they can lounge in comfortable chairs while deciding what books to purchase.

Market in your Local Community

Even if you’ve chosen a store with a decent amount of foot traffic, you’ll still likely need to do some marketing. Since you’re targeting local customers, consider some outdoor signs near your shop or maybe even sponsor a local event.

Create an Online Presence

And of course, having an online presence is also helpful in bringing in new customers. Even if you don’t want to sell books online, you should have a website with your location, hours and other relevant info. And set up a Facebook page or other free social accounts so that customers can easily reach you with questions or you can update them about specials or events.

Develop a Membership or Loyalty Program

Create a membership or loyalty program to encourage repeat business and build a community. Offer benefits like discounts, early access to special sales, or rewards for frequent purchases.

Host Events and Workshops

Organize book readings, author signings, literary discussions, or creative workshops. These events can make your store a cultural hub and attract more customers.

Collaborate with Local Artists and Writers

Partner with local creatives for exclusive items or events. Sell artistically related crafts, host local author book launches, or collaborate on limited edition releases to enhance the store’s cultural value.

Explore Subscription Boxes

For your online store, consider a subscription box service with curated book selections based on themes or genres, offering a unique way for customers to discover new books.

Offer Rare and Collectible Books

Include a section for rare and collectible books to attract collectors and enthusiasts, potentially leading to higher profit margins.

Utilize Data Analytics for Online Stores

Implement data analytics to understand customer preferences, popular genres, and sales trends, guiding inventory and marketing decisions for your online store.

Provide Personalized Recommendations

Offer tailored book recommendations in-store and online. Train staff for personalized suggestions and use algorithms or manual curation for online recommendations.

Implement Eco-friendly Practices

Adopt sustainable practices in operations, like using recycled packaging materials or energy-efficient lighting, to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers.

Expand Through Franchising or Opening Additional Locations

Consider franchising or opening new locations as a strategy for business growth and reaching new markets once your bookstore becomes established.

How to Start a Used Book Store Online

Alternatively, you can start a used bookstore online to cut costs and potentially reach an even wider variety of customers. Here are some tips for starting a used bookstore online.

Collect Inventory

Even with an online shop, you still need to collect inventory. You likely won’t need as much as you would with a physical bookstore, since you don’t need to fill actual shelves. But you should still have a decent amount for customers to choose from.

Consider a Specific Niche

Starting an online bookstore means you’ll have access to customers around the world. But those customers also have access to so many other online bookstores. If you want to stand out, consider choosing a specific niche so that you’ll have a better chance of building brand loyalty with specific customers, rather than trying to compete with Amazon. For example, if you only sell romance novels, you can build your whole site and experience specifically to appeal to that type of consumer.

Purchase a Domain and Hosting

Your online store needs a name, website and host. There are plenty of options to choose from for both domain and hosting providers. So consider your needs and compare prices and features to find the best options.

Register your Business

Your state may also require that you register your business, even if it’s online. You’ll need to look into your particular requirements to make sure that you’re complying with the law and collecting any necessary sales taxes and other information.

how to start a used book store

Consider other Platforms as Well

Even though you should have your own website, you might also consider selling on other platforms to reach more customers. Sites like Amazon and eBay come with lots of built-in traffic. And you can even sell used books on Etsy if they’re old enough.

Take Lots of Photos

Since online customers can’t actually pick up your items and see them in person before buying them, you have to give them a really good idea of the condition of each book through photos. Be really clear about the condition, even if it isn’t perfect.

It’s better to have a customer decide not to buy a particular book than having them buy it and then demand a refund and leave a negative review. Some buyers might even prefer used books with a little “character.”

Be Descriptive

Your item descriptions serve as another opportunity to give people all the information they might need to make a purchase. Make sure you list all of the general information along with details like the year and publisher, if available.

Create an Online Marketing Plan

You’ll also need a plan to reach out to customers online. You can do this through a variety of different tactics, including search marketing, online ads and content marketing. You’ll likely want to create a marketing plan that includes a combination of those different tactics, and then keep track of what brings in the best results.

Be Active on Social

Social media should be an an important part of your online outreach. You can use it to promote products and sales. But you can also use it as a way to answer customer questions and resolve any issues they might have. Many online customers now expect that businesses be available on social and answer questions quickly.

Continuously Scout Used Books

As your business grows and you make sales, you’ll need to continuously keep up with new inventory. Continuously scout your online suppliers and maybe even head to some local sales to keep bringing in more used books to sell in your online store.

how to start a used book store

Tips for Providing Excellent Customer Service

Once you’ve set up your used bookstore, whether offline or online, delivering excellent customer service is crucial for attracting and retaining customers. Here are some tips to ensure your customers have a positive and memorable experience:

  • Personalized Recommendations: Engage with your customers to understand their reading preferences. Provide personalized book recommendations based on their interests, making their book-buying experience more enjoyable.
  • Friendly and Knowledgeable Staff: Train your staff to be friendly, approachable, and knowledgeable about the books in your inventory. A helpful and well-informed team can assist customers in finding the right books and leave a lasting impression.
  • Create a Cozy Atmosphere: For physical bookstores, invest in comfortable seating areas, inviting decor, and good lighting to create a warm and inviting atmosphere. This encourages customers to spend more time browsing and potentially make additional purchases.
  • Virtual Assistance for Online Stores: For online bookstores, provide an easy-to-navigate website with clear categories and search filters. Implement a live chat or email support system to promptly address customer inquiries and concerns.
  • Prompt Order Fulfillment: In an online setting, ensure timely order processing and shipping. Customers appreciate receiving their books quickly and in good condition.
  • Clear Return Policy: Establish a fair and transparent return policy for both physical and online purchases. Clear guidelines will build trust and encourage repeat business.
  • Engage on Social Media: Be active on social media platforms and respond to customer comments and messages promptly. Use social media to announce new arrivals, promotions, and events, fostering a sense of community around your bookstore.
  • Customer Loyalty Programs: Offer loyalty programs to reward repeat customers with discounts, special offers, or exclusive access to book signings or events.
  • Host Author Events: Organize book signings or author events at your physical store or online to create buzz and attract new customers.
  • Collect Customer Feedback: Encourage customers to leave reviews or feedback, both online and offline. Use this input to improve your services and address any potential issues.
Tips for Providing Excellent Customer ServiceDescription
Personalized RecommendationsEngage with customers to understand their reading preferences. Offer personalized book recommendations based on their interests, enhancing their book-buying experience and fostering customer loyalty.
Friendly and Knowledgeable StaffTrain your staff to be friendly, approachable, and well-informed about the books in your inventory. A helpful team can guide customers in finding the right books, providing a positive impression that encourages repeat visits.
Create a Cozy AtmosphereFor physical bookstores, invest in comfortable seating areas, inviting decor, and good lighting to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. This encourages customers to spend more time browsing, fostering a pleasant shopping experience.
Virtual Assistance for Online StoresEnsure an easy-to-navigate website with clear categories and search filters for online bookstores. Implement live chat or email support to promptly address customer inquiries, creating a smooth online shopping experience.
Prompt Order FulfillmentIn an online setting, prioritize timely order processing and shipping. Customers appreciate receiving their books promptly and in good condition, leading to higher satisfaction and potential repeat purchases.
Clear Return PolicyEstablish a fair and transparent return policy for both physical and online purchases. Clearly communicate the guidelines to build trust and confidence in your bookstore, reassuring customers that their satisfaction is a priority.
Engage on Social MediaActively participate on social media platforms, responding promptly to customer comments and messages. Utilize social media to announce new arrivals, promotions, and events, creating a sense of community and fostering customer engagement and loyalty.
Customer Loyalty ProgramsOffer loyalty programs that reward repeat customers with discounts, special offers, or exclusive access to book signings or events. Loyalty programs incentivize customer retention, enhancing the relationship between your bookstore and its patrons.
Host Author EventsOrganize book signings or author events, either in-store or online, to create excitement and draw new customers. Hosting such events can attract book enthusiasts and create a unique experience, leaving a positive impression on attendees and potential future customers.
Collect Customer FeedbackEncourage customers to leave reviews or feedback, both online and offline. Actively use this input to improve your services and address any issues that may arise. Customer feedback provides valuable insights into your bookstore's performance and enables continuous improvement, ultimately enhancing customer satisfaction.
Delivering Excellent Customer ServiceBy providing exceptional customer service, you can build positive word-of-mouth and foster customer loyalty, contributing to the long-term success and sustainability of your used bookstore.

Remember, delivering exceptional customer service can lead to positive word-of-mouth and loyal customers who will help sustain your used bookstore’s success in the long run.

Frequently Asked Questions
Are physical bookstores still a viable business option for used books?

Yes, while physical bookstores have faced challenges, with the right market and determination, they can still be successful.

How do I find the right location for my used bookstore?

Research your community’s interest in buying used books and look for a location with sufficient space and foot traffic.

What permits do I need to start a brick-and-mortar bookstore?

You will need to obtain business licenses, zoning permits, and any other necessary permissions as required by your state and community.

How do I collect inventory for my physical bookstore?

You can find used books at garage sales, estate sales, online, or through purchases from customers in your community.

What can I do to create a unique experience for customers in my physical bookstore?

Consider offering additional features like a coffee stand, comfortable seating, or themed sections to attract customers.

How can I market my offline used bookstore to the local community?

Utilize outdoor signs, sponsor local events, and engage in local advertising to attract customers to your store.

Should I have an online presence for my physical bookstore?

Yes, maintaining a website and social media accounts can help customers find your store and stay updated on events and specials.

Is starting an online used bookstore cost-effective?

Yes, an online store can cut costs compared to a physical bookstore and reach a broader customer base.

How can I stand out from other online bookstores?

Consider focusing on a specific niche to appeal to a targeted customer base and build brand loyalty.

What do I need to register my online bookstore as a business?

Check your state’s requirements for registering an online business and ensure compliance with relevant laws and taxes.

Should I sell on other platforms in addition to my website?

Yes, selling on platforms like Amazon, eBay, or Etsy can increase your reach and exposure to more customers.

How important are photos and item descriptions for online book sales?

High-quality photos and detailed item descriptions are crucial since customers cannot physically examine the books.

How can I effectively market my online bookstore?

Develop an online marketing plan that includes tactics like search marketing, online ads, and social media engagement.

How do I maintain a steady supply of inventory for my online bookstore?

Continuously scout online suppliers and local sales to keep a diverse selection of used books available for customers.

Should I be active on social media for my online bookstore?

Yes, using social media to promote products, answer customer inquiries, and provide excellent customer service is essential in today’s online marketplace.

Used Bookstore Photo via Shutterstock


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Annie Pilon Annie Pilon is a Senior Staff Writer for Small Business Trends and has been a member of the team for 12 years. Annie covers feature stories, community news and in-depth, expert-based guides. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College Chicago in Journalism and Marketing Communications.