A bookseller should always be resourceful, and creative!

Bookshops speak directly with customers – they should know what is happening before someone in an office. Bookselling should be fun and educational, says Steve Jones of Books Kinokuniya UAE.


Often I meet up with booksellers who complain their sales have dropped – with the caveat that they don’t have any customers and that is why sales are down. And they are at a loss as to why this can be. I always liken this to Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares– where the hapless restaurateur or chef say they are going broke because they don’t have any customers. And Chef Ramsay replies, “Why aren’t their any customers?” and the chef doesn’t have an answer – and we, the viewer, find out the food is terrible. That is why there are no customers.

Journey as a bookseller…

In 2003, at the tender age of 27, I was hired as the General Manager for Books Kinokuniya in Sydney, Australia. I had 8 years’ experience in bookshops – learning how NOT to run a company. Now any mistake was going to be of my own making – mostly. Books Kinokuniya Sydney had been open over a year with stiff competition from about 40 other bookshops – all within a 20 minute walk. The store was empty of customers and no-one really knew what the shop stood for – and most didn’t even know it existed.

Armed with a vivid imagination, extreme immaturity (nothing has changed), and a copy of Edward de Bono’s Marketing without Money, and a marketing budget that would have been seen as laughable in the corporate world, I set about changing the company’s direction.

To gain traffic, I needed to start getting people to talk about Kinokuniya, recommend it, gossip about it, and obviously to purchase from us. I didn’t want the tried and tested way by inviting an author, having them sit at the front of the store in front of a tired, worn tablecloth, begging for a customer to buy a book. I wanted some fun and some pzazz.

The winning strategy…

Part of the strategy was to create a community and take old ideas and modernize them. Occasionally, we would host a Zine Fair – where students could hire a table and sell their homemade magazines (zines) to friends and strangers. Suddenly the student population started talking about us. Using the same method, we invited aspiring bakers to hire a table and sell their cakes and treats at the front of the store. Suddenly the foodies started talking about us.

We relaunched our art gallery – possibly the only art gallery in the CBD of Sydney – hosting art students and professional artists alike in the tiny space. The launch parties every 2 weeks brought a slew of new customers. Occasionally we would host controversial exhibitions such as “The Book they Tried to Ban” focusing on censorship in Australia.

Free Comic Book Day was borrowed from comic book stores in America. We gave away free single-issue comics without any caveat. But encouraged people to stay in the store with their friends. Cosplay competitions, artist displays, exclusive items all fueled a pop-culture extravaganza with thousands of visitors in a single day.

The farsight…

We never relied on the publishers to teach us about new titles. Most of the time we were researching trends in the USA and UK and airfreight stock before the local publisher even knew what they had. When Twilight was released in the USA, we airfreighted stock and hosted a Twilight Prom. 100 screaming teenage girls – and strangely one boy attended. Several months later, the local publisher announced that Twilight was going to be big. Teenagers were never going to wait for the publisher to catch up.

Role of social media…

Around this time, MySpace was just taking off. I saw a few businesses creating a page. So, I launched Kinokuniya’s first attempt at social media. Not long after Facebook arrived on the scene. Without spending any money, we suddenly had thousands of followers and were ahead of the social media curve.

Cost-effective efforts…

I’m not sure I have ever had a large amount of money to play around with while working in a bookshop. And despite the success of Kinokuniya in Dubai that is still the case. But we work in a creative industry, so we can create without large sums. A few months ago, we hosted a book and activity event –- themed around fishing. Total cost was 40 AED. Because we all thought about what we could accomplish rather than what money we didn’t have. Result was a fun filled day where we let the kid’s imagination fly.

Message to booksellers…

Not having customers is a symptom of something you could be doing wrong – it is not the reason why your sales are down. Focus on what you can do, create something fun for your customers and staff. Research what is happening in the world and predict. Don’t wait for a publisher to tell you what is hot. Bookshops speak directly with customers – we should know what is happening before someone in an office. Remember bookselling should be fun, educational, and for those who are thinking they will become rich being a bookseller? Maybe working in a bank is a better option. Frankly speaking I’d be a bookseller in a fun bookshop over being in an office.

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