News


Used bookshop scrambles to save business

Book Buyers redoubles efforts in face of possible closure

Hotranatha Ajaya, the owner of the downtown shop Book Buyers, committed what some merchants might consider a blunder -- he openly admitted that business wasn't so hot.

Costs are rising, sales are sluggish and online competition is undermining the bottom line, he wrote in his newsletter last week. In an earnest confession, he estimated that his used bookstore had three months to turn around or be forced to close down. But Ajaya made a sincere pledge: he would do everything he could to prevent that from happening.

He and his close-knit cadre of employees at Book Buyers are now making a last stand, working hastily to reinvent and reinvigorate the Castro Street bookstore, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next month. They are readying a spree of new events, price cuts and promotions all designed to rekindle interest in the printed word.

They are now coming to direct terms with a question familiar to many in retail: How does a brick-and-mortar shop survive in the age of the Internet? Ajaya describes himself as a "stupid optimist" who can't imagine seeing his business fail. He didn't have a magic-bullet solution, but said his team was going to experiment with plenty of ideas.

"I refuse to believe that it's not possible," he said. "If we don't succeed, it will be because we didn't have enough time."

He sat down last week to talk shop in bookstore's new living room, an open area equipped with sofas and tables. It was meant to encourage anyone in the store to relax and flip through a volume, whereas previously the shop put a priority on maximizing its inventory, he said. The room was a personal project for him, and for weeks he arrived early in the morning to build the furniture and clear the space for customers.

It was just one area of the book stacks that had been changed, and other upgrades are imminent, he promised. The new focus of his bookstore was on building community and getting people in the doors. To accomplish this, Book Buyers was using a variety of promotions some newfangled and some old-fashioned.

The bookstore had recently upgraded its website and making a concerted effort to plug itself on social media, said Tammie Stallings, the store's in-house marketing guru. On a daily basis, she is writing online posts and blogs listing off the staff's current favorite picks or inviting people to drop by for an afternoon flash sale. Stallings touted a 18 percent bump in Facebook page visits as a sign her efforts were effective.

Meanwhile, she said Book Buyers is doubling down on events and promotions that have been a mainstay for bookstores, such as author readings, open mic gatherings and targeted sales. Hawking second-hand books is never going to be hugely profitable, she said, but it is a line of work that is close to heart of many employees and frequent customers. Her own background is a testament to her passion. Up until recently, she owned and managed Handee Books in Santa Clara, but said she was forced to close last year.

"If you're in the book business, you're not in it for the money," Stallings said. "I have to look at books as widgets in a business, even though they're not like that. In my mind, books are magic."

Selling books still remains a profitable trade, said Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, which represents about 300 shops. While the market for books experienced a slump during the 2008 recession, Landon said sales have been on a gradual upswing since around 2012. The 2011 bankruptcy and closure of the bookstore chain Borders only helped smaller competitors, he said.

But used bookstores haven't fared quite as well, Landon said. He speculated that this could be because selling used books means tighter profit margins and possibly a customer base that tends to be more frugal. Used booksellers are also competing head-on with the online retail giant Amazon, which has made second-hand books a linchpin of its business, he explained.

"Collectively, independent booksellers are doing very well, but used bookstores are the exception to the rule," Landon said. "This industry is always going to be a challenge as long as Amazon is around, but booksellers are ready to rise to the challenge."

For Ajaya, 72, trying to revitalize business remains experimental. The business already sells books online through a sister store in San Jose. For a period, the store also tried to break into international sales, but the shipping costs ended up being too high and it was burdensome to deal with a patchwork of changing tax rules, he said. The main hope was to remind customers to come by and appreciate the bookstore as a local community institution.

"We're not going to ask for handouts," he said. "If we're going to survive, we need people to make the effort to come here and buy here."

Ajaya said he has already violated a promise he made to himself to leave the business when he turned 72. His goal now is to depart with the assurance that his business is on stable footing.

Oddly enough for a book seller, Ajaya didn't have a good answer when asked what books he was enjoying these days.

"Frankly, I don't read much anymore because I'm spending 15 hours a day here," he said with a laugh.

Comments

49 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 17, 2015 at 2:01 pm

Come on folks, go buy books there! It's good for your brain, and it might keep an awesome bookstore from being replaced with pho and bubble tea places.


24 people like this
Posted by Computer Guy
a resident of Shoreline West
on Apr 17, 2015 at 5:36 pm

This is a great store and I go there often.

However why do they have so many computer books published in the twentieth century? Tip: If the "Mastering Windows 95" book hasn't sold already, it is NEVER going to sell.


6 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 18, 2015 at 9:45 am

Convert to a used-books / gelato store.


9 people like this
Posted by True
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Apr 18, 2015 at 10:35 am

True is a registered user.

Wondering how an increase in the min wage might help here....


15 people like this
Posted by Truer
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 18, 2015 at 2:26 pm

All the minimum wage workers in MV will now have hundreds more a month to spend. Some of that will be spent in this store. That will help.


11 people like this
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2015 at 1:00 am

Sparty is a registered user.

> All the minimum wage workers in MV will now have hundreds more a month to spend. Some of that will be spent in this store. That will help.

Or... more to spend at Amazon.


17 people like this
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2015 at 8:45 am

The minimum wage bump might be the straw that broke the camel's back. If they can't cover increasing wage costs through more or higher priced book sales, they're toast. Too bad, I like the store.

These higher wage mandates will have lots of unintended consequences.


5 people like this
Posted by NW Resident
a resident of North Whisman
on Apr 20, 2015 at 9:28 am

I buy calendars at Book Buyers every year and they always have a nice selection. I've only purchased a few used books there over the years and usually buy most of my books from Books Inc next door.

I'll certainly give them another look to check out their updates and hope they can stay afloat in a challenging market.


13 people like this
Posted by True
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Apr 20, 2015 at 10:46 am

True is a registered user.

@Truer

That's cute.

Retailers will be forced to raise prices to cover the additional labor costs. At best, the additional income that low wage earners receive will be offset by the increased costs of the stuff they buy, if they are among the lucky ones to keep their jobs.


7 people like this
Posted by Bill Hough
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Borderlands books, a bookstore in San Francisco, made national news when they announced it was closing in response to higher minimum wage laws. Only a hastily cobbled together sponsorship program saved the store:
Web Link

The owner of Book Buyers says, "We're not going to ask for handouts," he said. "If we're going to survive, we need people to make the effort to come here and buy here."

It sounds like that they're not going the sponsorship route, so better get in there and buy.


23 people like this
Posted by PeaceLove
a resident of Shoreline West
on Apr 20, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Terrible news. Book Buyers is one of the absolute gems of Castro Street. If it departs it will be a big blow to the intellectual life of Mountain View.


34 people like this
Posted by A. Resident
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Apr 20, 2015 at 3:10 pm

Hotranatha,

If you're reading this, please add a cafe to your store. I think this will help, especially since you are open long after the other cafes are closed.


26 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2015 at 5:36 pm

I have used this bookstore for both buying and selling books, they also recycle old college text books for which there is no market. They also have one of the best selections of calendars if you need an unusual budget gift.

It would be a great shame to see this place go as we do need to have some eclectic perusal establishments in the area.


5 people like this
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2015 at 6:57 pm

Sparty is a registered user.

Trading old books for other old books is not a valid business plan.

at least charge a membership fee or something. Or do they do that already? Seems most of the traffic there is just people trading bags and bags of books for store credit for other bags of books


15 people like this
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2015 at 8:54 pm

Sparty, they wouldn't have been in business for 25 years if they traded books on a one-to-one basis. If you've ever dealt with them, you'll know that their store credit means you will give them 10 of your books for one of theirs, a little more or less depending on specifics. No matter, they would stay in business otherwise.


7 people like this
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2015 at 9:36 pm

Sparty is a registered user.

Should be clear that I've dealt with them, since I know about their credit system...

But obviously they just cant keep up with the times same as a lot of other book sellers. Look at the palo alto FOL book giveaways... They can never sell all the books, nor can they get rid of the thousands of books after the monthly sale, even for free. You can find Gardner's Art etc at the free PAFOL pretty much every month... yet some places still sell it.... hard to compete with free. Phaidon etc art books etc, free at the giveaway, or... $5-10 at a used store... not a valid business plan in 2015


15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 21, 2015 at 10:07 am

I think that the biggest threat to Book Buyers is the internet, which has all manner of bookstores with inventory that a brick and mortar store could never have, and access to a far larger customer base. If we want this local business to survive, we have to spend money there. Book Buyers also needs to find a way to reach more people, maybe set up a store front on Amazon's marketplace, and find other ways to pull in the increasingly affluent locals and get them to spend money. If I knew how to do that, I'd be doing it myself, though.


5 people like this
Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 21, 2015 at 1:00 pm

USA is a registered user.

Maybe Google, PayPal, or others could kick-in some money to cover the high rent on Castro in exchange for a discount for their employees or some other special consideration. Everyone wins.


6 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Shoreline West
on Apr 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm

@Computer Guy

"However why do they have so many computer books published in the twentieth century?"

Guess you didn't notice that it's a *used* book store.


7 people like this
Posted by Marty
a resident of Waverly Park
on Apr 21, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Contact the California Writers Club (CWC) about open miss there.

How about selling new books (top titles/best sellers, or order them for customers) to provide another product line.

Mountain View will be at a loss if this store has to close.


9 people like this
Posted by True
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Apr 21, 2015 at 4:31 pm

True is a registered user.

At one time in our not too distant past Mountain View had an icehouse, a farriers shop and milkmen brought dairy products right to your door.

Sometimes certain businesses are just doomed to the reality of modern conveniences.


14 people like this
Posted by Chris Knoblaugh
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2015 at 10:31 pm

Please become our neighborhood writer's nook. We need a Peninsula hot spot for writers that is NOT South Bay or Belmont. Host some writers critique groups. Take a page out of Book Passages in Marin's cookbook of writers' conferences. Offer prep classes for kids who want to publish and guide them to places like the San Mateo County Fair publishing submissions. Ask for crowd funding from gofundme.com. Support classes attached to using a "mentor text" to write your own materials. Blend used books with creative craft efforts. The good news is that we teachers are REQUIRED to push our kids to write for CCSS. Make that an opportunity for you. All of the public schools are required to do it for the Smarter Balance tests. Key into that to help parent with support writing classes for their kids using used mentor texts. We love you. I have stocked my classroom library with may purchases from your store, and I teach in the South Bay.


3 people like this
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:24 pm

Sparty is a registered user.

>Maybe Google, PayPal, or others could kick-in some money to cover the high rent on Castro in exchange for a discount for their employees or some other special consideration. Everyone wins.


Google employees already get a 25% discount...

They have been remodeling for a while. First the little endcap reading stations, and they have the "living room" now


20 people like this
Posted by Kathy Hall
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Apr 22, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Heading down to Book Buyers this afternoon to spend some $$$. They add to the character of downtown. It would be a shame to see this space replaced by yet another restaurant or worse yet, a corporate chain. I am guilty of using Amazon Prime way to often, putting my money where my mouth is.


12 people like this
Posted by Alison Stern
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Apr 25, 2015 at 7:26 pm

We have been buying books and calenders here for a while now. We also have been attending their new Gaming night and it has been a lot of fun.

BayCon 2015 will also be making sure that at least a Business card ad goes into our program book as the standard exchange for them putting out our flyers.

Hopes that we in the community can help to keep them going!


7 people like this
Posted by NinaD
a resident of Cuernavaca
on Apr 26, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Books are Magic! The smell and feel of a good book in your hands is something online books can never replace! I wish Book Buyers every success!


5 people like this
Posted by AC
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Apr 26, 2015 at 7:15 pm

Unfortunately books are not in large demand, Music CD are not in demand and old Calendars are not needed but people like to look at them. I see the library giving books away so the competition is tough. For a store to profit, there must be a demand. Yes Win 95 is a computer book but not paying the rent and you cannot give it away for free. Good luck BB.


12 people like this
Posted by Ron Massie
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 28, 2015 at 2:37 pm

From Ron Massie
As an ex-employee-I would suggest to Bookbuyers to open up to Author Events at the Bookstore. And to also use the on-line resource-Open up a Web Page for On-Line purchases. I would hate to see Bookbuyers close...


5 people like this
Posted by Richard
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 28, 2015 at 4:46 pm

Great place to browse and maybe pick up an impulse buy or make a discovery. Mostly though, I don't have time for that. Probably the one thing that finally put me off going in was that they could never tell you if they had a certain title in stock. You had to go look, in several sections at times, mostly to find out the book wasn't there. Contrast this with Amazon, Bookfinder, or ABE Books (all online). Enter the title, select the book from many available, pay the price and predetermined postage and that's that. Of course you have to wait for the book to be delivered, and a worthy local business doesn't get the revenue, but most of the time BookBuyers didn't have the title anyway, and you could never tell beforehand.

It would be a shame to lose BB, because I think, as others do, that it is a great asset on Castro. There have been some good suggestions in the comments, and I hope the owner is reading these. However, raising the minimum wage on an already struggling business is NOT a winning strategy. It will only accelerate the downward spiral.


3 people like this
Posted by Ron Massie
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Apr 29, 2015 at 8:44 pm

This is truly an asset, please support them...I would also suggest why not let the employees & the local community buy in and make it a cooperative book store-It would be worth a try to save Bookbuyers. I know Keplers in Menlo Park did something like that..(The point being let the employee's and the community get involved)


3 people like this
Posted by A Book Buyer
a resident of Waverly Park
on Apr 29, 2015 at 11:54 pm

I've bought and sold at Book Buyers. However, I am frugal, and look for the cheapest price. So these days, I mostly buy online. If they would price match the online price, for a book of comparable condition, then I would be more compelled to shop there. In my opinion, the price on most of their books is too high.


5 people like this
Posted by Susan Hubbart
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2015 at 9:00 pm

Before going to Books Inc. for a new book, you should check out BookBuyers. They frequently have new release books that someone bought, read and took it in for trade to BookBuyers. I have purchased several new release books there.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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