We make systems for bookstores and in doing so get to see many starting out, in addition we interact with many very experienced store owners. We also have bookstore owners on our team with the real-life experience of what it is like to run a bookstore.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it does contain a number of common problems we see when stores come to set up. The idea here is to share our experience to help budding bookstore owners be better prepared.

This article focus on the more strategic questions and should be read in conjunction with Financial Aspects of Starting a bookstore

How to open a bookstoreTo make your dream a reality

To start a successful bookstore some stars have to align; you should have:.

  • A passion for books
  • An audience that ideally aligns with that passion
  • An ability to reach them
  • The capital to achieve it

1. Finding the balance - What type of bookstore do you want and what type do your customers want?

This may seem like a silly question, but it’s important to be clear. The answer will determine if you want backlists or new releases - children’s books or adult literature, non-fiction or fiction etc...

A passion for books is a great starting point. Do you have a background in children’s education? Are you a former librarian? This may suit a bookseller operating a Children’s Bookstore. Specialising in both new and existing titles, but also supplying your customers with beloved classics.

Perhaps you are an author yourself. Someone involved in writers groups and festivals. You might read all the latest best selling books, and spend your free time reading and writing reviews on Goodreads. A well stocked, traditional bookstore may be a perfect model for you. Holding author events in store, operating an in-store book club.

Finding your people

If your passion is your starting point then you need to find out if there is an audience for this in the location you want to open your store; or you need to find a location that does.

If you cannot change the location, (maybe you have been offered a great deal on the cutest store) you might need to adjust the kind of store you open to match what your local audience would love.

It is not possible to stock every book that is published so it’s important to listen to customers. It is futile to dedicate the majority of your shelves to Military History if your customers are forever requesting books on Gardening.

A well thought out business plan means that any changes required once the doors are open are usually minor. eg, extending your Romance section, or reducing the amount of Craft books ordered in your next months New Releases


If you are still hunting for that perfect location, you have the opportunity to consider not only the location of direct competitors (other bookstores), but also your proximity to major department stores. In most cases, these stores will have the ability to sell the majority of new releases substantially cheaper than you. Even the most experienced bookseller will struggle to compete with this.

If your location is set, you need to think about competition and potentially adjust your product mix. Are you in a bustling metropolis, surrounded by well established bookstores? Instead of launching your store as a direct competitor, perhaps you can approach an audience that has been overlooked. A neighbouring store may already be well stocked with new releases, but might not carry backlist and discounted titles.

Selling books in a small town sometimes goes further than the day to day operations of running a store. Engaging with your customers to make sure you not only stock the latest and greatest books, but that you can also source and order obscure books when requested can make you the go-to place in the area.

2. Lean on the experience of publisher reps

Probably the next most important thing to do after working out the kind of bookstore you would like to be and finding a possible location is to talk to book suppliers. Do this before signing a lease!

Publisher reps have vast experience with what sells in different kinds of stores and locations. This will help you to both refine the focus of your store (and potentially avoid a costly mistake) and will provide a recommended starting stock list. This will give you the budget required to buy opening stock.

We always recommend setting up direct accounts with as many publishers as possible, as soon as possible. We also recommend that [shops] sign up with Shelf Awareness for the free marketing programs

Heather Duncan, Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association

Introduction to supplier deals

While some companies will allow you to open an account, most distributors will only offer pro-forma for the first six months or even a year (i.e. you need to pay up front) but it is generally on a ‘sale or return’ (SOR). This means that if the books do not sell you can return for a credit within a certain window (normally 3 - 12 months from purchase). This means there is a strong incentive for the reps to recommend titles that will work. Note also that there are ‘firm sale’ titles - these you cannot return so you need to be confident that you can sell them before buying.

The book industry works around RRPs (Recommended Retail Price) and on a discount rather than a margin basis. So a 100% margin is a 50% discount. The ‘discount’ you receive from a supplier will depend on a number of factors; size and track record being major ones, but it typically ranges from 35% to 55%.

To make this easier we decided to start a supplier directory. It is early days on this so suggestions are welcome!

3. Make sure you have enough money to buy books

The reason for talking about books and customers first is that these things are the heart of your business. You’ll need to have enough capital to be able to get the range you need. Don’t be the store that spends everything on fit-out and can't afford stock, leaving a beautiful space with only a few books that makes it look like it's closing down. See this article/case study on the financial aspects of starting a bookstore.

4. Join associations, talk to bookstores

As a rule people in the book industry are in it for more than the money and are happy to see more bookstores opening. Aside from the shop across the road, the competitors that concern them are the central giants, so they are generally happy to share experiences and offer advice.

Joining a local booksellers association is another must do, they advocate for booksellers, offer deals and have a wealth of knowledge that they freely share with members, especially new stores trying to get off the ground.

Bookseller associations also hold annual conferences that the major publishers attend. You get to meet them all in one place at one time.

Attend regional bookseller conferences and join the ABA or other similar professional org, so you can meet sales reps and hear about upcoming catalogues and authors.

Ally Kirkpatrick  Old Town Books, Virginia

Associations also often have identity resources to share to save reinventing the wheel and can help connect you to local publisher reps. See a list of some bookseller associations here.

5. Plan to trade online from day one

Being able to market and trade online expands your potential audience. This helps all bookstores, but is extremely important if you are a niche bookstore in a small town or a low foot-traffic site. You need to be able to reach beyond the physical store to capture an audience that is not easily able to visit.

6. Get a bookshop system!

While we would love you to consider we understand that it is not for everyone, so do your research. The beauty of a system tailored for bookstores is that years of experience on how to run a bookstore is baked in. A system specialised for bookstores will put you on the straight and narrow when it comes to the day to day operation of your bookstore.

7. Be prepared!

We’ve had owners in training with leased stores who haven’t thought to open accounts with suppliers. We’ve also seen people trying to set up and use computer equipment for the first time on opening day. (In many ways these sorts of things have prompted the writing of this article.)

Planning the type of store you want to be, approximate locations and initial contacts with suppliers should be some of the first steps. Once you have secured a location the real investment can start. Just be aware that there is a lot to do before opening, and the more you can get done before rent payments start, the better.

Get a domain

You will need to register a website domain name to match your store. Eg Black’s Bookstore will become, etc.. Before you finalise the name of your store make sure the website domain name is available!

Finally, the domain should reflect the country you are trading in for New Zealand, for Australia, .ca Canada etc. Book buyers like to know where a shop is trading; it’s confusing and annoying when this convention is not followed.

Financial logistics

You will need to register your business details/name to receive a National Business Tax Number. This will be required for opening a business bank account. Be aware, this may take a lot longer than you expect as the bank may require more documentation than when opening a personal account. Organising an Eft-Pos terminal (electronic payment with a bank) before you open is vital, otherwise you will only be able to trade with cash on opening day! Be aware that this may all take a little longer to arrange, just like a bank account.

Sort your business identity

Find yourself a talented graphic artist to design a business ‘identity’ package. Logos, colours, fonts etc. Without this it is very hard to produce the marketing material (assets) you will need. Stationery (bookmarks and postcards) shop displays and advertising plus websites and social media profiles etc. Register on Facebook, Instagram, X. Paying a professional rather than doing it yourself on Canva can be money well spent.

When you open, engage a professional photographer to photograph your store and your team. These help to make your website look good and unique and are invaluable on social media.

8. When to start - low season/high season

High season for most bookstores is the run up to Christmas and our observation is that most new stores try to open into this. If successful it’s a great way to start, but when you are new a lot of things can go wrong. This is the time of year when you need the most stock which can stretch capital, and the mix you’ve chosen might not be quite right for the location.

Fit outs can take longer than expected and cost more, computers, printers and networks can be problematic and staff can struggle with new systems under the pressure of queues of customers at the counter.

The alternative is to start just after Christmas, the main benefits are that stock levels can be lower at this time and it is less busy, which gives you time to perfect everything before the busy season.

The final and lowest risk option is to start online only (in other words in your garage). Online only is very hard to make work as a full-time business, but it is a good low risk way to test a niche idea and to learn the industry ropes. The other benefit is that it will force you to learn how to sell online, something that is often neglected by bricks and mortar stores.

9. Consider buying an existing store or joining a franchise

If opening a store from scratch sounds daunting consider purchasing an existing store or buying into a franchise where there is a track record and systems are already in place. A franchise will also have a head office that will/should provide ongoing support, training, marketing and group deals.


Opening a bookstore is a great thing to do and you will be joining a supportive and inclusive community. Before you do, have a clear idea on what sort of store you want to be and if there is a local customer community for you. Use suppliers and associations to get advice and support and make sure you have enough capital to properly stock your store. Finally, get organised well in advance of opening, which of course includes getting a bookstore management system.

This is by no means the last word and we encourage established stores and industry people to share ideas and what you ‘wish you had known’ in the comments.

Useful additional references

How a law firm sees opening a bookstore

See other articles on specific features and how they can help bookstores

If you would like to learn more about CirclePOS, email or book a demo

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